The job is almost done

A victory well-deserved... Manchester United players celebrate after defeating Chelsea in a crucial English Premier League match at Old Trafford.-AP

Manchester United is on the threshold of glory. A point from either Blackburn away or Blackpool at home would seal a record 19th English Premier League title — eclipsing Liverpool's record of 18 — for the Old Trafford club By Arjun Ambarnath.

It's almost theirs! They can almost touch it! The Manchester United players are on the verge of winning the Barclays Premiership, a moment that their fans, young and old, have been eagerly waiting for. Perhaps, it is ironical that it had to happen at one of the most intimidating venues in world football. Nothing could beat the harmony of the Old Trafford crowd, packed to the rafters to witness the moment.

Some would say it was hard-earned, while others would say it was largely a canter, with only some minor hiccups. But in fairness, it was one that was truly deserving. Manchester United is on the threshold of glory. A point from either Blackburn away or Blackpool at home would seal a record 19th English Premier League title — eclipsing Liverpool's record of 18 — for the Old Trafford club.

For many oldies, this would be the moment they had wanted to witness before their last breath; and for many of the young fans, it would be the first of many more in the years to come.

“Want to knock Liverpool off their perch,” said Sir Alex Ferguson when he left the Scottish club, Aberdeen, to coach Manchester United in 1986. Twenty-five years on, the man is very close to doing it. Even the club's legend Sir Bobby Charlton couldn't control his emotions in the stands.

It's almost done. Only a fool would bet against United at this juncture.

Going into the May 8 fixture against the reigning champion, Chelsea, the scene was set. United was three points in front and level on goal-difference; a game against its closest rival on home territory where it has had a remarkable record all season: 49 points won out of a possible 51. It was in control of its own destiny and the pressure was palpable. No one in the United camp would have dared to suggest that the league title was rubber-stamped in its favour, even when it had a huge advantage at the top a couple of months ago. But surely, the manager and the team were very confident.

It is this confidence that ultimately proved to be the key. It was never going to be easy against a rival coming into the match on the back of an amazing five-game winning streak and all the momentum that was to be had with it. Down and out barely a month ago and 11 points adrift of the league leader, no one would have given this Chelsea team a chance of making it its title to lose heading into the final two weekends. Interestingly, neither would have United expected itself to be in a situation where Chelsea would go above it with only two games to go.

But United knew it was all in its hands and that it had the experience of going the distance, so it was no surprise that it came out on top.

Sir Alex pulled off a transfer coup in the summer, bringing in the talented Mexican youngster Javier Hernandez. Initially, there were doubts about the boy's ability to adapt to the physical nature of the league. But scoring crucial goals coming off the bench in the league and an equally creditable performance in Europe have made Ferguson's investment really worthwhile.

His crucial opening goal against Chelsea just about silenced his back-beaters and ‘Chicharito' is now an instant hero in Manchester. But the success of United hasn't been about individuals alone. The ‘collective' effort of the team is something the manager would be proud of.

Wayne Rooney, after horrible headlines and ugly contractual issues with the club, displayed the kind of football that was expected of him as a champion player. Nemanja Vidic, who scored the all-important second goal against Chelsea, has been United's bedrock in defence all season. His consistent, muscular displays at the back have earned him the respect of the club and fans. And it is no wonder that United continues to have one of the meanest back-lines in the league, taking into account Rio Ferdinand's and Patrice Evra's efforts.

When Cristiano Ronaldo left for Real Madrid two summers ago, Ferguson was left with his toughest task yet — to find a replacement for his long-time leading goal-scorer and creator. Nani stepped in. After a very ordinary performance in his initial years at Old Trafford, the Portuguese winger made his mark as United's new creator-in-chief this season. Ferguson once again deserves credit for keeping his faith in the player.

It has taken a while for United fans to gear up to Dimitar Berbatov's wearied style of play, but his initial form in the season was just about what the manager would have wanted. A stunning hat-trick against Liverpool and five goals against Blackburn certainly did his reputation a world of good. Most importantly for United, he now seems to fit the bill.

While Ferguson has had the men to get him the results, he has also benefited from the services of some senior players in the team who were a calming influence in tough situations.

At 40, Edwin van der Sar couldn't have hoped for a better send-off. Brilliant in goal all season, his presence has certainly helped Ferguson a great deal. His ‘old' friend Ryan Giggs, in a recent interview to a daily, admitted that his experience has helped him use the ball better, pick a pass and find space on the football pitch. The elder statesman, now in his 20th year at Manchester United, has been lucky with injuries and is still enjoying his football; not that Sir Alex is complaining.

For a man who was in awe of the likes of Steve Bruce, Bryan Robson and Mark Hughes during his first dressing room experience and is now the ‘old' guy at United, Giggs has indeed come a long way. His amazing work ethic and vital contributions to the team in the Champions League and EPL have been more than what Ferguson could have asked for.

This hasn't been a vintage season for Ferguson and his men. They have had to do it the hard way, grinding out wins and maintaining self-belief. Crucially, the team has had the ‘big-match' temperament, which was well illustrated in the win against Chelsea. Ferguson, for the genius that he is, has had some incredible footballers and some incredible teams in his long time at the helm. But his biggest challenge has been to re-build, to try to emulate those great yesteryear sides. Here, the man has created another great bunch of players with top talent and experienced ones who can contribute when needed. He's probably simmered down a little bit as manager over the years, but each individual at United understands what is expected of him. As Giggs rightly put it, “The discipline is still there, but in a different way.”

If Jose Mourinho is the ‘Special One', then Sir Alex Ferguson can truly call himself the ‘Great One'. With a Champions League final against the mighty Barcelona still to come, it might well turn out to be a special few weeks for one of football's greatest club-manager combinations.

As for Carlo Ancelotti, the Chelsea manager, his future remains uncertain at the club despite a brave late surge for which he must be given credit. But will that be enough for him to save his job? Ending the season empty-handed and an ageing squad to deal with, it just might spell the end for the Italian, who was spotted in Rome recently.

In the other half of London, the disappointment remains for Arsene Wenger, who will complete a sixth year without a trophy. The Arsenal manager has only himself and his footballing philosophy to blame.