By Chris Harris
Sunday, April 9. It was the day Jose Mourinho expected Chelsea to clinch their second successive title. But far from being a cause for celebration, April 9 could be the day the pendulum swings back towards Manchester United.
When Mourinho made his prediction in February, it was unthinkable that anyone other than the defending champions would get their hands on the Premiership trophy. It's not so clear cut now. While Chelsea have stuttered, United have strung together eight wins to cut the Blues' seemingly impregnable lead to a far less cosy seven points.
United have the momentum and they still have to visit Stamford Bridge. However, they need to beat Arsenal at Old Trafford this Sunday to keep up the pressure. Can they complete a remarkable comeback and pip Chelsea to the title? The mood in Manchester is one of quiet optimism.
"I think there is a feeling around the club that they can for sure," says Stuart Brennan of the Manchester Evening News. "I was in the tunnel when United beat Bolton last weekend and there were quite a few players who were mildly ecstatic.
"There is a feeling that they have got a chance, especially when Chelsea are slipping up at places like Birmingham, which should really be an away banker.
"Sir Alex Ferguson will be loving it, that's for sure. He won't play 'mind games' with Jose Mourinho in the way he did with someone like Kevin Keegan but it's the first time Mourinho has been under this kind of pressure. Chelsea have their own problems and Ferguson will happily let them stew a little."
If the prospect of Arsenal winning the Champions League seemed a pipe dream no more than a few months ago, the odds on United mounting a challenge to Chelsea were even longer. The departure of Roy Keane highlighted shortcomings in midfield and an injury to Gary Neville left the defence vulnerable. So why are United firing on all cylinders now?
"It's difficult to put your finger on it," says Brennan. "They tried so many midfield combinations after Keane got injured and then left. They didn't really know what formation was needed. Neville's return from injury was important because he's always been a key figure, but Wes Brown has also come back in and steadied the ship.
"Having a settled team is probably the key and players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney are maturing. Rooney has been the key man all the way along and United would probably struggle if he got injured. You wonder how he carries so much weight on his shoulders at the age of 18 but he does.
"Edwin van der Sar has made a big difference in goal too. He gives United the solidity they didn't have in that position last season with Roy Carroll and Tim Howard. Louis Saha has come in and made a big impact too."
If United cannot peg back Chelsea - and games are running out rapidly - their recent resurgence will give them cause for optimism when next season kicks off. However, there is still one area which needs urgent attention in Brennan's opinion.
"Midfield is the obvious problem," he says. "United need one, possibly two midfielders. There is a huge black hole in there. Ryan Giggs and John O'Shea have done well recently but you wonder what they could do if they had a player like Claude Makelele who can sit in there and dictate the play.
"If they can get a playmaker too, that would also help to take the pressure off. He's all over the park and always drops deep to pick up the ball, so if someone was in there to give him the ball in advanced positions he could do even more damage."
Those issues will no doubt be addressed in the summer. For now, United have their sights set on a smash-and-grab raid for the Premiership title. Don't rule them out - after all, they've done it before. Remember 2003?
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