United lands knockout blow in title race

STEVE DOUGLAS AP Sports Writer Published:

LONDON (AP) -- The engraver is sharpening his blade. Bookmakers are already paying out. And Manchester City's players have a look of resignation in their eyes.

Is the Premier League title race already over?

Last season's finale was arguably the most exciting in the history of English football, memorably going down to the final minute of the final game.

The way things are panning out this time round for Manchester United, the championship could be settled a month early.

United landed what many believe was the knockout punch at the weekend by surging into a 12-point lead -- the biggest this season -- over City, the beaten and bruised challenger.

Even the Premier League's incessant PR machine is struggling to hype this one up.

Alex Ferguson's assessment that United is in a "fantastic position" looks to be the understatement of the century. His team is unbeaten in 14 matches and has the hottest strikeforce in the league. No team has blown such a big lead at this stage of a season.

Just what has happened to City?

OK, they've lost only three league games this season -- one in unfortunate circumstances against United -- and are attempting to chase down a rival that has made its best-ever start to a Premier League campaign. But that doesn't tell the whole story.

The attacking spark that was the catalyst to their title charge last season has disappeared, with Mario Balotelli's departure leaving City short-hand up front and Carlos Tevez failing to live up to expectations.

Defensively they have been suspect, never settling on a first-choice center-back partner for captain Vincent Kompany. Even goalkeeper Joe Hart is making mistakes, his latest blunder coming in Saturday's 3-1 loss at Southampton when he conceded a goal by spilling a straightforward catch.

When star midfielder Yaya Toure is putting in below-par performances, as he did against Southampton, you know the game is up.

Ruffling his hair, City manager Roberto Mancini had a haunted look to him as he faced the media post-match, giving his team a "10 percent" chance of retaining the title and bemoaning its "worst game in two or three years."

He has vowed to ring the changes in the last 12 games to find players "who are ready for the fight" but the biggest change at the club may come at the end of the season. With potentially only the FA Cup left to play for, Mancini's job is on the line.

"I am very angry with a lot of my players" he said, "because it is impossible to play the way we did.

"Every team that plays against us treats it like a Champions League final, but we should know this, it is normal."

Ah, the Champions League. Mancini would have been wise not to bring that up.

Another failed campaign in Europe's top competition saw City pick up just three points from six games -- a sorry total for England's champion side -- and raised more question marks about Mancini's coaching credentials at the very highest level. He flopped in the Champions League when coach of Inter Milan, too.

And while United is now preparing for a last-16 match at Real Madrid in the Champions League this week, City's players are left kicking their heels ahead of a match against second-tier Leeds in the fifth round of the FA Cup on Sunday. That just about sums up the state of the two teams at the moment.

Ironically, if City is to have even an outside hope of clawing back the deficit to United, it could have the Champions League to thank.

Should United advance past Madrid and go on to reach the final at Wembley Stadium, that would add a further seven games to United's schedule and perhaps make them take their eye off the Premier League. City will also cling to the fact that it made up an eight-point gap to United with just six matches to go last season.

However, Ferguson made it abundantly clear after United's 2-0 win over Everton on Sunday that that meltdown is still fresh in the memory and won't happen again.

With Madrid on the horizon, he nevertheless fielded against Everton seven likely starters at the Santiago Bernabeu and kept top scorer Robin van Persie on for the entire 90 minutes.

Ferguson is taking no chances this time.

"When I saw (City's) result, I knew how important the game would be for us," he said.

With third-place Chelsea winning handsomely against Wigan on Saturday, there is even the danger that City could be caught be the chasing pack below them.

That would probably be the end of Mancini at City.