By Chris Harris
By Manchester United's lofty standards, three seasons without a title is a pretty poor show. Sir Alex Ferguson's side were the dominant force in English football in the 1990s but Arsenal - and more recently Chelsea - have kept the Premiership trophy away from Old Trafford since 2003.
That could all be about to change. United's title credentials were questioned before the current campaign kicked off but a flying start gave them the momentum to challenge Chelsea. At the time of writing they are six points clear of the champions, free of injury and firing on all cylinders. Oh yes, and they have Ronaldo, a man who has shrugged off the chagrin of press and fans alike in the wake of the World Cup to take his game to a new level.
Ahead of Sunday's big game at Emirates Stadium, we asked Stuart Mathieson of the Manchester Evening News about United's hunger, their two Footballer of the Year contenders, Henrik Larsson's impact and the reaction to Arsenal's 1-0 win at Old Trafford in September.
THE STORY SO FAR
"They started the season well and that has carried on. The fear was that United would have a slow start and playing catch-up with Chelsea is very tough. The mindset at United has often been along the lines of 'we'll be OK in the New Year, we'll be there or thereabouts' but that hasn't happened in the last two years. They have been too far behind Chelsea to catch them and that forced them to change their mindset. Ferguson pointed out publicly and in the dressing room that United could not afford a hit-and-miss start. I'm not surprised that United have maintained their solid start, I always felt they were good enough to keep it going. They are a confident bunch of players. After three seasons without a title the novelty will return if they win it but in fairness players like Neville, Giggs and Scholes have never lost that hunger. For these kinds of players this is the longest period they have gone without winning the title and so the hunger and desire is even sharper. As you know, it hurts to see Chelsea cavorting around Stamford Bridge with the trophy."
MAN OF THE MOMENT
"Well, the only thing that could deny Ronaldo the Player of the Year is Paul Scholes. The pair of them have been terrific and I don't think you can put a cigarette paper between the two. Ronaldo is a more prominent figure because of the World Cup incident and he captures the imagination, but ask United fans and they will tell you how impressive Scholes has been. As for Ronaldo, he always had the trickery but now he has the end product too. He came to United at 18 and at that age you just want to show off as much as you can. He infuriated Ruud van Nistelrooy because when David Beckham was here Ruud would make a run and know when the ball will come. With Ronaldo you never knew when he was going to cross, he would often check back, but now he knows when to do the tricks and equally knows when to send the ball over. He is much more productive now."
"Henrik Larsson was terrific in his first game against Aston Villa. We'd all seen him in the Champions League Final when he made such an impact but there was always that wonder whether having made his decision to go back to Sweden, to a league nowhere near La Liga, he would mentally ready. Physically there is not an ounce of fat on him and mentally he's been terrific too. Even if he doesn't score he makes a big impact and creates space for others, we saw that when he came on against Arsenal in Paris last May. Larsson can score plenty of goals but he has also impressed with his intelligence and his running off the ball."
"There's no doubt Ferguson will put his best team out. He made a lot of changes over Christmas just to get them through that programme. If they'd played their best team throughout that period they would probably be shattered now but certainly all the big boys will be there against Arsenal. They respect Arsenal, especially what they have been doing of late, but they will attack at Emirates Stadium. Ferguson has a full squad to choose from and this is another important issue. In years gone by they have missed key players for long spells but that hasn't happened this season. Ji-Sung Park is back after an ankle operation and although Gabriel Heinze has been out Patrice Evra is playing so superbly that he wouldn't necessarily get in the side anyway."
IMPRESSIONS OF ARSENAL
"After Arsenal won at Old Trafford in September I think United were resigned to the fact that they were virtually outplayed. Arsenal passed them off the park and were the better side by far really. I don't know whether United got their tactics wrong but it served as a little wake-up call after winning their first four matches. United got out of the traps quickly but the wheels came off against Arsenal. There was a slight reaction against Reading in the next game but they have put it together since then."
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