Football Expert & Columnist
Man Utd have a healthy cushion over rivals City, but the title race is far from over, says Jamie Redknapp.
Last Updated: 04/01/13 8:29pm
As the Premier League takes a break for the FA Cup third round weekend, Sir Alex Ferguson will be happier than his Manchester City counterpart, Roberto Mancini, with his Manchester United side seven points clear at the top of the table.
But the title is far from won yet.
United are favourites to reclaim the crown but there's a long way to go; both teams have factors which could affect the title race falling in their favour - and the drama of last season's finale shows how quickly things can change.
With six games to play at the end of last season Ferguson's side had just moved into an eight-point lead with a win over QPR, and Arsenal's defeat of City, after Mario Balotelli had been sent off, left most - myself included - expecting United to win a 20th league title.
United were right where they wanted to be and it was assumed Ferguson's side would - as they usually seem to do - avoid any mistakes and get the required points needed to win the league - but last season the rulebook was thrown out the window.
United lost to Wigan, dropped two points against Everton (despite leading 4-2 going into the final ten minutes) and defeat to City at the Etihad swung the advantage back to the blue half of Manchester.
So, despite the seven-point deficit, there's no reason for City fans or players to think they aren't able to turn this around.
However, it's vital the champions are still within touching distance of their neighbours come April 6 when the sides meet at Old Trafford.
If City can still be seven points behind - or better - going into that game (and they'll need to cut out the mistakes which saw them lose to Sunderland on Boxing Day and nearly get caught out against Reading before Christmas) then they'll have a chance.
If City win that encounter and reduce the difference to four points then United will get nervous, the pressure will be on and who knows what will happen; footballers are only human after all.
Mancini will, no doubt, be quick to remind everyone what happened when United began to let a cushion at the top of the table slip last season...
However, City would much rather be playing that crucial, decisive second meeting at home, as they did last season - but the fixtures have fallen in United's favour this time round.
Both sides still have to play the rest of the current top six once more in the league - but for United three of those five games are at home, while City must play all but Chelsea away.
United, though, have the added complication of the Champions League to worry about; while City will be disappointed to have finished bottom of their qualifying group, their absence from the knockout phase is an advantage in terms of their Premier League ambitions.
United face trips to QPR and West Ham after their away and home ties to Real Madrid, respectively, and, although those fixtures could have been tougher for Ferguson's men, it is still not ideal to have to play on the road after the physically and mentally draining experience of Champions League knockout games against the Spanish giants.
Ferguson, though, has the added advantage of Robin van Persie in his line-up; last season Unitedy lost the title on goal difference so in the summer he went out and bought the best centre-forward in the country.
I predicted he'd be the difference between the teams this season and that's proved to be the case so far, with even Mancini admitting last week that the Dutchman has played a key role in United pulling clear at the top of the table.
In contrast, City have the troublesome Mario Balotelli in their squad, who wouldn't last two minutes at Old Trafford.
He's a problem in the dressing room; he always has been and always will be. Yes, he's a talent - but is he worth the hassle? He just seems to bring negative press on the team.
City won the title last year but Balotelli nearly blew it for them with his sending off against Arsenal. He's extremely lucky a lot of the fans still stick by him and the manager is very protective of him, but I fear he could be their downfall in the end.
The contributions of Van Persie and Balotelli to each side's cause over the next few months will be interesting to see, but there are many factors which decide a title race - from fixtures and talent to attitude and experience.
And, as last season taught us, we should expect plenty of twists and turns before the final whistle in May.