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United grinding out another title

Check out the highlights of Manchester United's 1-0 away win at Fulham.
Check out the highlights of Manchester United's 1-0 away win at Fulham.
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Patrick Barclay

Patrick Barclay is one of England's most experienced soccer writers. He has covered the game for every broadsheet newspaper and attended eight World Cups. Barclay is the author of biographies of Jose Mourinho (Further Anatomy of a Winner) and Sir Alex Ferguson (Football - Bloody Hell!) You can follow him on Twitter @paddybarclay.

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LONDON, ENGLAND

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With less than a third of the season left, the title race looks over and likely to be remembered - if it is at all - as one of the least exciting since the EPL's inception 21 years ago. Apart from being confined to Manchester, it's certainly got little in common with last season.

We have gone from the sublime drama of the closing minutes of 2011/2, when City came from behind to snatch the prize from a helpless United by beating Queens Park Rangers with Sergio Aguero's unforgettable goal, to a procession, a long and slow coronation of Sir Alex Ferguson's team. It's admirable but, for non-members of the United family, a little dull.

When Ferguson, on the Sunderland pitch with his players last May and ready to celebrate, heard that City had impudently borrowed their stoppage-time habit, he started to devise a plan for recovery. He is good at that. He even wrested the title back from Jose Mourinho's Chelsea in 2007. And now the wily Scot looks certain to silence the noisy neighbors.

The obvious starting point was to sign Robin van Persie from Arsenal. Adding the Footballer Of The Year to your squad must make sense - and, when you're coach of Manchester United, you can do such things.

But there's more to it than the acquisition of the brilliant Dutchman, who has stayed at the top of the scoring charts while somehow adding new facets to his game - like the weekend goal-line clearance to deny Fulham in a thriller settled by a single goal from Wayne Rooney.

Van Persie and Rooney have instantly dovetailed. Yet United retain two other strikers who have struck up promising partnerships with Rooney - Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez. So Ferguson can rotate, and keep them all fresh and eager. At other clubs it might cause problems. But Ferguson has the knack of keeping substitutes onside - he can just point to 1999, when Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer confounded Bayern Munich in the late, late show that won the Champions League.

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When Ferguson remarked recently that he now had an even better quartet than then - the first choices in the treble side were usually Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke - it was quite a tribute. But the arrival of Van Persie makes it credible. Approaching his 30th birthday, he just seems to get better and better. And, after his years at Arsenal, he's ravenously hungry for trophies. That's something that will have commended him to Ferguson.

The veteran Scot has once again run the campaign in exemplary fashion. His own behavior towards referees and their assistants may leave plenty to be desired - he faces yet another Football Association charge for remarks about an assistant at Tottenham a couple of weeks back - but the professionalism instilled in the United squad has been key to their success so far.

In 13 games since the 1-0 defeat at Norwich in mid-November, they have tied at Swansea and Tottenham and won everything else. It's not always spectacular - seven of the 11 wins have been by a single goal - but it exudes the consistency that claims titles. And what must gall City is that Roberto Mancini's men have generally been displaying that quality too, despite a bad setback Sunday with a 2-2 home draw against Liverpool.

What sets United apart is the knack of turning ties into wins. They even did it against City at the Etihad in December. After Rooney had scored twice in the first half, Yaya Toure and Pablo Zabaleta put City level and most opponents would then have tried to cling to a single point. Not United. Van Persie won it with a free-kick, admittedly one that took a wicked deflection off Samir Nasri.

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Wicked? That's the word. For City, when it became clear that Van Persie was determined to leave Arsenal, had wanted him too. Money was not the issue. City could afford the required $36 million and would have paid an even higher salary. But Ferguson was persuasive and the lure of Old Trafford, where trophies are expected rather than aspired to, did the rest.

Maybe I'm assuming too much. There are, after all, 13 games to go and one of them, at Old Trafford in early April, pits the Manchester rivals against each other. An additional factor is the distraction United will soon face in the form of the Champions League, which next pits them against Mourinho's Real Madrid. But Ferguson's United has proved it can fight on two fronts.

In each of three most recent seasons that have seen Ferguson's men finish top of the Premier League - 2007/8, 2008/9 and 2010/11 - they have also reached the final of the Champions League. Ferguson is the master of squad management at the highest level. All City can do is stay in touch and hope - and wait for the day when the old master finally retires.

Patrick Barclay is one of England's most experienced soccer writers. He has covered the game for every broadsheet newspaper and attended eight World Cups and nine European Championships. Barclay is the author of biographies of Jose Mourinho (Further Anatomy of a Winner) and Sir Alex Ferguson (Football - Bloody Hell!) You can follow him on Twitter @paddybarclay.

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