Soccer Coffee: United's Bitter Title, QPR-Wigan, Stoke's Fall

Alex Livesey

It's going to be an empty, empty run-in for Manchester United. Sir Alex Ferguson's side is cruising to one of the most unfulfilling titles in Premier League history. Yesterday's Manchester Derby was a chance for United to snatch a bit of glee, a bit of icing to add to their title-winning cake - beating cross-town rivals Manchester City, the team who took the title from United last year, would have closed the book on the 2012 circus that left Ferguson and his black and blue clad players on the field at the Stadium of Light in a black and blue state of mind.

A victory over City, at Old Trafford, would have left no doubt on who the alpha of England is, and it would have been an exclamation point on United's steamrolling 2012-2013 league campaign - which has been unflinchingly steady, but never thrilling.

Instead, Manchester City played gumption and zeal, while United floundered. Roberto Mancini out-coached Ferguson, who once again tactically misfired with the central midfield pairing of the tired Ryan Giggs and the punchless Michael Carrick. Mancini played his hand expertly, finishing United with the well-timed introduction of Sergio Augero, whose slingshot run to create the winning goal was reminiscent of his Premier League winning goal last May.

United were second-best on the day, and although the stats show they haven't been second-best to anyone this season, it's hard to feel that way, after losing massive games to City, Chelsea and Real Madrid. In fact, United end the season having lost their three most important games. While their two biggest domestic rivals contest an FA Cup semi-final next weekend, and their biggest continental rivals battle for the Champions League trophy, United's last month of the season will be dry - and title #20 will be undeniably bitter.

The Wigan - QPR game clearly outlined the difference in fortune and fate between two sides headed in dramatically different directions.

QPR should be very good. Their players have club names like Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Chelsea, Manchester United, and Tottenham on their CV's. They have England's best manager at the helm, and a rich, aggressive owner to back the club.

But Rangers is fantasy football at its worst. While Redknapp has been able to give the once completely lost team some shape and a sense of direction, 'Arry has not been able to make QPR a unit, a working squad. He hasn't been able to cure the rash of individual blunders and the ability to capitulate from many different directions that plagues every doomed team.

QPR is a jumble of players that are only with the team for a payday, and already have exit strategies should Rangers be relegated. The team isn't all in for Premier League survival. They don't have to be - after all, the players have names like Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham on the resumes. If QPR sinks, they can jump ship.

That lack of togetherness, that lack of an "all in" attitude, that lack of lazer focus was apparent against Wigan - in Bobby Zamora's moment of madness, Steven M'Bia's stupid foul and Adel Taraabt not jumping in the wall. Also apparent was the talent - Loric Remy's goal was superb, and QPR should have won. But they didn't. And their relegation fate has been sealed for a long, long time.

Wigan, on the other hand, were not very good. The Latics had 80 minutes of normal-time football against the worst team in the division, and they could not score a single goal. Unlike QPR, Wigan didn't have a player who could turn the game with a moment of magic, and they weren't decisive or technical enough in the final third to make much of a difference in the game.

But how surprised could you be that Wigan pulled something out of the fire in the end? That's what Wigan do - they scrap, they fight, they believe, and at the very bottom of the Premier League table, that often does the trick. Shaun Maloney was one of the poorer players on the field, but it was his free-kick that saved a point for Roberto Martinez.
No one could ever accuse anyone of playing a Wigan for a payday. Wigan is a club that hangs on for dear life in the Premier League like the world will end if they are relegated, and their players play with the same disposition. It works.

Stoke have become a caricature of themselves. Once upon a time, Stoke's ugly connotated scrappy and tough, now, Stoke's ugly has become hideous and it appears that Tony Pulis is pathologically opposed to playing anything other than Championship kick-ball. Five years ago, when Stoke were first promoted, that was okay. But Stoke aren't going anywhere with their system and style, and that's the only system and style the manager knows, then he has to go.
It would be sad to sack Pulis - he has made Stoke a Premier League club - but now he has to try to advance the club past their station as mid to bottom table dwellers.

Last weekend against Aston Villa, Pulis left Charlie Adam, Michael Owen, Peter Crouch, and Michael Kightly on the bench, while the likes of Ryan Shotton and Dean Whitehead played. It doesn't make sense. Now may not be the time for a rapid departure from Stoke's style of the last half-decade with so much on the line and so little time to change things, but if Stoke stay up, they will need to change their style next year. If Stoke go down, they will have paid a dear, dear price. And for what? Playing awful football.

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