This year, the gap might be too big to overcome. After what will turn out to be a pivotal weekend in the Premier League title race, Manchester United have increased their lead to 12 points, all but guaranteeing that the title returns to the Red half of Manchester. I know what you're thinking, United were 8 points ahead last season and Manchester City overturned that margin to win the Title in the most dramatic finish to a season the League has ever, or will ever, see. If they did it last year then it's conceivable that they could do it again this year, right? Wrong. This is not the City team of last season. Something is missing, the fire seems to have gone out. Throughout the season they have played with the complacency of knowing they are Champions. They have done it once, so it's not the end of the World if they don't win it again. This attitude hasn't got them very far this season. A disastrous Champions League campaign, where they finished bottom of their Group and failed to even qualify for the Europa Cup, was just the beginning. Their league form has been on gradual decline and it all came to a head Saturday evening in Southampton. City were out-worked, out-fought and out-classed. On a wet evening on the South Coast they saw their faint title hopes fade into the distance. Southampton, one of the promoted teams from last season, weren't fancied to get anything from this game. City would have disposed of a team like this with ease last season and with what was at stake they would do so again. How wrong we were. City were never in this game, Southampton bullied them from start to finish. In particular Ricky Lambert, the stocky Forward took full advantage of City's makeshift centre back Javi Garcia and the out-of-favour Joleon Lescott, who was evidently severely lacking in confidence. He caused havoc throughout the game and Southampton took a deserved lead through Jay Rodriguez. Then, catastrophe. Joe Hart, England's number one Goalkeeper and widely regarded as one of the top young Goalkeepers in the World, has not been himself for the majority of this season. He has been mistake-prone and has looked devoid of confidence as City's title began to slip through their fingers. This mistake was unbelievable, a simple shot that Hart had easily covered, he was behind it and seemed in control of the situation. Then, almost as if it was happening in slow motion, allowed the ball to slip through his fingers and through his legs and Steven Davis was on hand to pounce on the goal-line to make it 2-0. The look on Hart's face said it all, he knew just how costly it was. It would get worse, too. City pulled a goal back through a fantastic counter-attacking goal from Edin Dzeko, but then it went from bad to worse. A cross from the left trickled into the area and with no danger around him, Gareth Barry, another England International who has struggled this season, used his weaker foot to try and guide the ball back to Hart instead of clearing himself and instead somehow guided the ball into the corner of his own net. 3-1 and game over, the City players knew it and their Manager Roberto Mancini knew it. Mancini has been fighting a losing battle with this team all season. Whether it be the Mario Balotelli incidents or rumours of other squad unrest, he has never seemed in control. He looked a lonely figure on the touchline on Saturday, the fiery Italian gesturing to his players trying to get a response, to no avail. He finally appeared to throw in the towel by substituting the creative David Silva with right-back Maicon. A bemusing decision when you consider Yaya Toure, playing after returning 2 days before from the African Cup of Nations tournament, looked exhausted and unable to be effective the way he normally is. Just another miscalculation in a season riddled with them. As the final whistle blew and Southampton fans and players alike were celebrating as if they themselves had won the league, City players had a resigned look on their faces. They knew that they had let themselves down. This was a performance lacking the urgency and commitment that was evident when they won the title last season. This was a Comedy of Errors and City could count themselves lucky this wasn't a more damaging scoreline. Southampton created chance-after-chance and a more ruthless team would have taken full advantage of City's inept defending. They looked as if they had the attitude of just turning up to this game would be enough to win it. An attitude that has cost them dearly now. The title they had worked so hard to get had almost slipped away. All they could now do was watch in hope that Everton could keep them in the race with a result against United. No such luck. Sir Alex Ferguson, the iconic United boss, had threatened to field a weakened team for this game. The small matter of a Champions League tie with Real Madrid on Wednesday to consider. However, having witnessing City's demise the previous evening, he sensed an opportunity to put the final nail in their coffin. He named a strong starting eleven against an Everton team that have had a lot of joy against United in the most recent meetings between the two sides. This time, there were no mistakes. Ferguson, as he has infinite times throughout his career, provided the perfect team selection and gameplan to ensure his United team were victorious. Marouane Fellaini, a thorn in United's side the last 2 games he has faced them, was man-marked exceptionally by Phil Jones throughout the first half. A master-stroke from Ferguson and with Fellaini a non-factor Everton didn't have a cutting edge despite enjoying good possession. Nerves were settled with an early goal, a cool right-footed finish from the ageless Ryan Giggs. With that goal, Giggs is now the only player to have scored in every Premier League season since it's formation. This record is one than will stand the test of time. The fact Giggs can still influence a game of this magnitude says a lot about the man. His longevity, professionalism and willingness to sacrifice have made him one of the greats and provided the youngsters and everyone at United with a fantastic role model and someone they can look up to and aspire to be like. They didn't have things all their own way, Everton enjoyed a good spell where David De Gea was called upon to make two fantastic saves. De Gea has been crucified in some parts of the media for his efforts this year. How ironic then, that it was media darling Joe Hart making the errors whilst De Gea was giving another assured display. People forget De Gea is only 22 years of age, in only his second season in a foreign country. He has adjusted extremely well since his arrival, in particular with his command of his penalty are and his communication. There's a very good reason Barcelona are rumoured to be looking at De Gea as a replacement for Valdes at the end of the season. The game was all-but-over just before half-time with another clinical finish from Robin Van Persie. Few can argue that Van Persie has been the difference-maker this season. He is the best striker in the world currently and he gives United a different dimension. At £24 million ($37.9m), he has proved to be more than worth the money, especially when you consider some of the extortionate fees that clubs have paid for underachieving strikers in the past. Van Persie has delivered when it matters most this season, coming up with big goals in huge moments during the season which has got United within touching distance of their 20th league title. His partnership with Wayne Rooney is now flourishing and is one of the most fearsome in Europe. Rooney playing the role of creator for Van Persie for most of the season. Realising that the main goal is the title and not individual accolades, another of Ferguson's teachings he drills into every player that walks through the doors at Old Trafford. The second half United were in Cruise control, never letting Everton back into the game. An efficient performance ensured a 2-0 victory and given United a 12 point cushion atop the Barclays Premier League. There were no celebrations from the players after the game. They know there is work to be done, their focus and determination have not altered throughout the season. They remember the pain of last season, having the title in the hands only to have it snatched away with the very last kick of the season. They have used that experience to spur them on this season while most teams would have still been reeling from those events. One of the main contributing factors in this transformation has been each teams transfer activity. United identified their weaknesses last year and strengthened accordingly. We have spoken of the arrival of Van Persie being critical, add to that the shrewd purchase of Shinji Kagawa and United had more than enough firepower to get back the title. City, on the other hand, did not acquire any of the big names they were hoping to. Ibrahimovic, Falcao, De Rossi and Fellaini were all mentioned. In the end they got Jack Rodwell, Javi Garcia and Scott Sinclair. Hardly a statement of intent. Mancini adopted the 'If it's not broken, why fix it?' approach while Ferguson didn't hesitate to spend what was necessary to leapfrog their neighbours. Even after Balotelli's departure Mancini was reluctant to spend. Their lack of goals and presence in the team has cost them dear. United have wrapped up the title in my opinion, with bookmakers already paying out on this occuring. They will take nothing for granted after last year, but that experience will stand them in good stead without question. Ferguson has seen off all the big spending clubs throughout the years. First there was Blackburn Rovers, then Newcastle, Arsenal, Chelsea and now finally City look to be following in the same footsteps as so many others. Until Ferguson eventually retires, you can't envisage things changing anytime soon. That's just how the Red half of Manchester likes it. Dean Jones: Follow me on Twitter @DeanJones_
April 08 2014 10:05 AM EPL NEWS: FIVE FINALS TO GLORY - WILL LIVERPOOL WIN THE TITLE?
April 08 2014 9:46 AM EPL NEWS: FIVE FINALS TO GLORY - WILL LIVERPOOL WIN THE TITLE?
April 08 2014 9:41 AM EPL NEWS: FIVE FINALS TO GLORY - WILL LIVERPOOL WIN THE TITLE?