Jim White

United return smiling

Jim White

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On Sunday in Tokyo Manchester United won FIFA's Club World Championship despite the fact - according to their manager Sir Alex Ferguson - their players were so jet-lagged none of them got more than a couple of hours continuous shut eye. One thing is for sure, as they pored over the newspapers on their return home, Ferguson's squad would not have lost any sleep.

As a cure for travellers' blues the news that none of their title rivals had managed to make use of United's absence to win a few matches could not be beaten. This is what they discovered as they returned home: Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea couldn't find a victory between them. Instead of being cut adrift by their enforced involvement in Sepp Blatter's monumental folly, they can scan a table which looks distinctly more favourable just as January - always Ferguson's favourite month - comes ever closer. And why is January Ferguson's favourite month? Because traditionally that's when his teams make their surge for the title.

Sure United are seven points behind Liverpool with two games in hand and we all know points on the board are reality whereas games in hand just potential. Plus United - should they overcome Derby in the Carling Cup semi final - will have another game postponed to add to their backlog. Yet the manner in which, even as United have under-performed this season, no-one else has got their act together with sufficient dispatch to take advantage, makes things look ominous for anyone who is not of a red persuasion.

With the honourable exception, that is, of Aston Villa.

The general notion is that Villa do not have the equipment seriously to challenge for a top four place, never mind the title. And - as the performance of their second string in the UEFA Cup last week demonstrated - it is probably true that a couple of unfortunate injuries to the likes of Ashley Young or Gareth Barry would quickly reveal the thinness of their resources.

But they do have one thing that appears to be beyond any of Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal or even for that matter United just now: they are in form. Corralled by a brilliant man-manager, the Villa players currently believe in themselves, believe that they are good enough to sustain a run, believe that they can break into the cosy cartel of Champions League clubs. Quick, coherent and focussed they do not have the look of a team that will be easy to shift from their current position. They look as if they could be here to stay come May.

So how will the division sort itself out? This is the most unpredictable Premier League in years. At the bottom things are so competitive that a team can be in crisis one week, pushing for Europe a couple of wins later. As Paul Ince and Roy Keane have discovered, careers can be set back years by an unlucky bounce or an injudicious back pass. As Joe Kinnear, Sam Allardyce and Harry Redknapp have discovered, reputations can be restored by engineering a single victory.

Right now, apart from West Bromwich Albion, no team looks to have settled into the bottom three in the manner of past competitions. And even the Baggies have given themselves the scent of escape now that they have earned three points against the side being dubbed in the red half of Manchester the Richest Club In The Championship.

Such is the way things are going, it is possible that a side which has never appeared in the bottom three might find itself in the relegation zone come shake down. Anyone who predicts the identity of the three heading to the Championship come May is on a hiding to nothing. But that shouldn't necessarily stop us, so I'll go for West Brom, Stoke and - if they lose Emile Heskey in the transfer window - Wigan.

As for the title race, it is no more certain. It seems likely that Arsenal are out of it. Pretty as they can be, too many injuries, not enough leadership and a Patrick Vieira-sized hole in midfield is not the stuff of champions. So that leaves United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Villa bidding for the title. And for want of any better predictive tool than what has happened in the past, I'll go for them in that order, United winning it in dramatic style, perhaps by goal difference, on the final day of the most exciting season in a generation.

Unfortunately I won't be around on this site to either gloat if I got it right or enjoy the reminders if I got it wrong. This is my last column here. If you have been, thanks for reading. It's been fun.

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