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Feb 9, 2012

There's no 'I' in team

Check the details on a lengthy CV and Sir Alex Ferguson has won 37 trophies in his time at Manchester United. Yet his reign has resulted in far more silverware ending up at Old Trafford. Over the past quarter of a century, United have had the PFA Player of the Year 11 times and the recipient of the football writers' award on a further six occasions.

This season may be very different. United's indefatigability could earn Ferguson a 13th league title, if not the title of manager of the year, which ought to be contested by admirable overachievers Alan Pardew, Paul Lambert and Brendan Rodgers. When the recognition of playing excellence comes, it is still more unlikely there will be celebrations at Old Trafford.

Because a shortlist for the outstanding footballer may have a rarity value: For once, it might not include any of Ferguson's charges. David Silva was catapulted into the status of favourite after Manchester City's 6-1demolition of United. Since then, Robin van Persie may have displaced the Spaniard with his astonishing goalscoring. The defending champion, Gareth Bale, has proved more prolific than he was in a year when his fellow professionals deemed him the pick of the bunch, so his candidacy should not be ignored. The signing of the season, Demba Ba, has been the clinical catalyst to Newcastle's uplifting campaign. Yaya Toure is the division's outstanding central midfielder and, after Van Persie, Sergio Aguero arguably the sharpest striker.

That is a plausible half-dozen. Wayne Rooney is a notable exclusion, not least because his 15 league goals include three apiece against Arsenal and Chelsea as well as an FA Cup brace against City. Yet his has been a stop-start season of feast and famine. Compare it to the 2009-10 campaign, when Rooney was rightly recognised as the player of the year, and his case is nowhere near as compelling.

Consider his colleagues and it is notable that none have sustained their form over the season, even with much of it remaining. Michael Carrick and Antonio Valencia have been excellent in the last couple of months, but neither was even in the side at the start of the campaign. Like Rooney, Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck appeared unstoppable back then, but the winger's form deteriorated and the striker endured a lengthy goal drought. Among the attacking talents, Nani - sadly overlooked last year - has come closest to consistency. But he retains a capacity to frustrate and, again, it is not even his finest season. Welbeck and Phil Jones merit consideration for the young player awards, but the senior honours are likely to elude their team-mates.

It is partly because theirs has been a collective challenge for the title. Ferguson deploys a squad system with players of similar ability, if differing attributes. It has worked to United's benefit that diverse individuals peak at separate stages of the season: Carrick, for instance, is a traditional slow starter, which mattered not when Tom Cleverley and Anderson were dovetailing nicely in August. A reluctance or inability to make huge signings like Aguero, Silva and Toure has rendered a horses-for-courses approach more pertinent. It has also denied Ferguson some of the logical contenders for individual acclaim.

Above and beyond that, there is the sense that this an underwhelming United team. It is a theory that riles Ferguson, even if it is rather reinforced by their exits from the Champions League, Carling Cup and FA Cup. Comparisons can be drawn with plenty of superior sides over the past two decades, whereas City are in uncharted territory in their players' lifetimes. Tottenham's title tilts are almost as rare while Newcastle's improvement was unexpected. In such circumstances, the men propelling clubs to new heights stand out. So, too, do heroic exploits in adversity. Scott Parker's unrelenting determination in a doomed West Ham side earned him plaudits last season and, while Arsenal's plight is not comparable, Van Persie has been inspired in resisting decline.

In contrast, United triumphs often bring comparatively little acclaim. It is the price of sustained success. We are inured to them winning. We take it for granted. Unless anything exceptional happens, therefore, it is harder for anyone to impress. If their remarkable winning habit leaves onlookers blasé, it is partly because, apart from an exceptional start to the season and a December flurry of goals, performances have been unexceptional.

For more of the campaign, City have looked like champions in waiting. They have recorded surely the season's defining result, the 6-1 at Old Trafford, and won 5-1 away at their next closest challengers, Tottenham. They have scored most goals and conceded fewest while playing with a flair many previously doubted they possessed.

Yet they have been unable to shake off their dogged neighbours. They still only lead United by two points, with the reigning champions an increasingly ominous presence behind them. There may only be one piece of silverware bound for Old Trafford this season, but it may yet be the Premier League trophy. And if, as seems likely, Ferguson's charges are ignored for the individual awards, it might heighten the achievement if they can topple City. Football, after all, is a team game. Or, in United's case, a squad game

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