United turn screw in title race
"MUFC. AAA Rating" proclaimed the banner in Loftus Road's School End. For fans of a club with such a well-publicised debt, it was an odd choice of topical reference, but if ratings are handed out for the likelihood of winning a 20th title, then Manchester United are definitely Triple-A. As against Fulham on their previous trip to West London, they did not dazzle, but hardly needed to.
Queens Park Rangers are a plummeting team but Sir Alex Ferguson recognised this victory's importance. At the final whistle he made his way to United's travelling fans and punched the air with the feeling of a manager who believes his team are within touching distance, in a manner he did ten years ago at Highbury. His team have far and away their best record at this stage of any Premier League season, and City kick off their Sunday lunchtime fixture with Chelsea fully fifteen points behind.
The latest victory on an unbending road to the title might have come at a cost. Robin van Persie's failure to shake off a strangely sustained injury will have sent some into collywobbles about his ability to be fit to face tougher opposition, but Ferguson cut a relaxed figure post-match after Rafael's wonderful strike and Ryan Giggs' goal at a ground he first scored at nineteen years ago, in his 999th professional match.
Jose Bosingwa, back in from the cold after his freezing out by Harry Redknapp, embodied what was a passionless display from far too many Rangers players. The gameplan had been to keep United at bay, as happened against Chelsea twice, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur. A target of 20 points from the remaining 12 matches had been set, but no dent was made in that total.
With Wigan beating Reading, Newcastle facing Southampton on Sunday and Aston Villa feeling the brunt of Arsenal's recent troubles, a positive or neutral result could have put Redknapp's team back in touch. They have not been out of the bottom three since August, and with just two wins all season, look sunk. Next week's trip to Southampton has the look of a classic relegation six-pointer.
The last time Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick played as a central pair, United suffered their last league defeat on a torrid evening at Norwich. In last season's corresponding fixture, Phil Jones ran Rangers ragged, but his absence with the ankle injury that may cause him to miss the return leg with Real Madrid did not allow Ferguson that option. Tom Cleverley was saved with the Spanish giants in mind. Wayne Rooney too, was in reserve, his sinus problem not quite ruling him out altogether, as Ferguson had suggested. Rooney came on to play a lively part as United pushed for a second late on.
Ashley Young was booed on his every touch by a Rangers faithful unforgiving of his simulation against their team at Old Trafford last April. Nani, back in favour after his match-winning display against Reading in the FA Cup on Monday, should have headed in Young's free-kick in the 11th minute. Chicharito Hernandez's effort five minutes later was far superior but Julio Cesar was equal to the task.
When Van Persie somehow created the angle for a shot that Cesar could only parry, Rafael produced one of the goals of the season. Drilled with the trajectory of a surface-to-air missile, Cesar was beaten by both its power and direction. The goal came with a debit side, as Van Persie careered off the pitch and collided with a TV camera.
A minute later, Van Persie, in attempting to twist and turn away from two Rangers midfielders, pulled up. He reached for his lower back, and tottered around in pain. Van Persie may not have looked his incendiary best of late, but having taken a painkiller tablet, he reminded of his clear and present danger when directing a Rafael cross with a waft of his left foot. Cesar saved smartly and crucially. Rangers had begun to get into the game, with Andros Townsend making an impression and hopes might have been raised when Van Persie did not last much longer, leaving the field for Danny Welbeck with an uncomfortable jog.
"He's given himself a sore hip," Ferguson said of what he also described as a "bizarre injury". "I imagine it might be tender and sore, but I think he'll be alright."
With Real flying to Manchester for next Tuesday, no risks were being taken. United's second-half showing was one of control. Rangers were off-beam for much of it, with wayward passing drawing audible pain from frustrated home fans. David De Gea made one save, from Loic Remy, whose twanging thigh muscles were risked in the second half instead of Bobby Zamora, who had looked injured in the first half and lasted just a few minutes after the interval. Rangers' inability to keep their strikers fit might raise question over the wisdom of locking Peter Odemwingie out in the street. Redknapp has confusingly high hopes of Zamora and Remy despite their injury problems, saying after the game: "We don't score any goals. That's the problem. Between then with 11 games to go, I can see them doing some damage."
As the game ticked towards inevitable victory, United fans contented themselves for almost the whole second half with regaling Michael Carrick to the tune of Pilot's 70s hit 'Magic'. It was indeed hard to believe he was not Paul Scholes as he repeated his season-long form of calm and precision. Rangers were reduced to pitiful scraps. Both Rooney and Welbeck had shots blocked before Nani, on a breakaway, threaded in Giggs. Even in his 40th year, the Welshman can spring an offside trap, and he can finish too. Rangers fans made their way to the exits in anger and resignation, with United fans gleefully reminding them that their team was "going down" - a sentiment that few will have disagreed with.
Even the most melancholy United fan might struggle to be pessimistic about their team's chances of winning the title.