Many Manchester United fans have already written the league off this season as part of the transition between Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure and David Moyes’ new regime.
As it stands this morning Manchester United are 10 points behind league leaders Arsenal and seven behind rampant title-favourites, Manchester City.
But as Sunday’s 3-0 victory against Aston Villa showed, if the real United turn up they can be irresistible and fans will stand for nothing less than a full-blooded defence of their Premiership crown in the games that remain.
With 22 games to play and a possible 66 points still on offer there is no reason that United can’t still retain their title. The busy Christmas period will be crucial as usual but they will have to kick-start their title run without Robin van Persie.
The Dutchman is out for a month with a thigh injury and as the saying goes, one man’s misfortune is another opportunity. That means it’s time for Danny Welbeck to step up to the mark.
Welbeck’s talent has never been in doubt despite some mediocre performances and an inability to do what strikers are supposed to do: score goals!
His two goals at Villa Park on Sunday were his first since the opening day of the season and he showed a poacher instinct that most United fans have longed to see.
In an England shirt he averages nearly a goal every other game but for his club he has barely managed a goal every six games.
It does beg the question: why not do that for the team who provide your bread and butter?
At 23 years of age he can no longer sit back and rely on the promise of a future talent waiting to emerge. He has been nurtured and now it’s time for him to repay the loyalty and patience the club and the fans have shown him and become the catalyst for the turnaround in fortunes new manager David Moyes needs.
In some regards Moyes has an impossible job following the most successful manager in British football history, but there is no doubt that he has the talent pool at his disposal to make an impact on the title this season.
What he needs is for Welbeck to become a poacher of goals rather than someone who scores the odd good goal every six or seven games. That might be acceptable for a midfielder but it is not acceptable from a centre forward.
The Christmas schedule means that United have four games in 10 days and every second of every game is crucial. For Welbeck it is the opportunity he must have longed for: to have a sustained run in the starting 11 and a chance to stake his claim to keep it.
It has been a mark of United’s season so far that their home form has been patchy at best.
What was once a fortress now seems less so, a problem born out of fear. The players feel the tension in the crowd and it has manifested itself on the pitch in some pretty mediocre displays at Old Trafford.
Away from home, as yesterday’s performance proved, there does seem to be more freedom and intent about United’s play and it has to be said that it was against an average Villa side.
Nonetheless, they still had to be beaten and United dished out an emphatic one at that.
After the first goal they looked like they would score every time they got near the Villa box and Welbeck looked particularly dangerous in an attacking formation which included himself Wayne Rooney, Antonio Valencia and Adnan Januzaj.
It was the type of display that England fans have seen from Welbeck but which has too often been missing from his performances for United.
In fairness to Welbeck there has been a distinct change in United’s playing style this season. Often they have been set up not to lose rather than to win. In the game against Everton, for example, United pretty much dominated the play but still managed to look like they were clinging on for a draw. They went on to lose that game.
Playing with fear is corrosive and it is clear that United are playing scared at Old Trafford. They had a similar problem against Newcastle and again lost 1-0.
Sure Everton and Newcastle are both decent team but last season’s United would surely have turned their dominance into six points.
Yesterday on the other hand, after the opening 15 minutes at least, United looked aggressive and threatening. They had two people pushing on down the flanks with a bit of purpose and showed the type of clinical finishing we have all come to expect.
At the centre of much of yesterday’s attacking play was Welbeck and he showed the type of player he can be when he puts his back into it.
Both of his goals were well-taken and his second was a touch of genuine class with a pass, move and finish that Lionel Messi would have been proud of.
With Van Persie’s enforced absence Welbeck’s performance yesterday should earn him a sustained run in the starting team. It will be for him to take the opportunity and lead United’s resurgence towards retaining their title.
Championship crown gone? No, it’s not too late, but all of the manager and the players need to man up and remember who they play for and what that means: this is true of no one more than Welbeck.
Image courtesy of The FA, with thanks.