Manchester United top the Premier League table after the 1-1 draw at Birmingham City, yet the greater fear for rivals lies in the knowledge that Sir Alex Ferguson's side has so much scope for improvement in away games.
They were denied victory in the 89th minute by a Lee Bowyer goal that should have been disallowed since Nikola Zigic had already committed a foul in the build-up, even before the ball came off his arm.
The Birmingham manager, Alex McLeish, suspects it is the opposition's authority at home that will be decisive. "I don't see any reason why United can't win it," he said of the contest for the title. "United's recent form would say that teams fear the worst when they go to their place." Ferguson's side would have a perfect record in league games at Old Trafford this season but for the draw with West Brom in October when they let slip a 2-0 lead.
If other clubs have hope, it lies in United tending to go astray a little when they hit the road. The side may be unbeaten in the league, but one win and seven draws from the away fixtures constitute a moderate return. There are 10 other clubs with as many points or more on their travels.
United have still to go to Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea. In addition, the trip to Liverpool is likely to be challenging regardless of the opposition's moderate standard in other games. Nonetheless, Ferguson will be encouraged by the progress being made while he brings younger players into his side. The degree of success looks better still when it is remembered that only in the Premier League have United been checked on other people's pitches.
Valencia, Bursaspor and Rangers lost their home fixtures to United in the Champions League. There is an obvious means by which United could do better still, but Wayne Rooney faltered again at Birmingham. The goal at Bayern Munich in March remains his most recent for the club in open play. Rooney may now be getting selected because of the harm and uproar if he were dropped, but a player such as Javier Hernández, who has four goals in the League despite starting just half a dozen games, must still be disappointed not to have seen more action.
The real beneficiary of Rooney's difficulties is Dimitar Berbatov. While the Englishman played slightly to the left as a deep-lying attacker at Birmingham, Berbatov was at centre-forward and used his lovely skills to shape and score the goal, with Darron Gibson as his assistant. Berbatov has eight goals in his past three League matches and seems to thrive when Rooney is merely among the supporting cast.
Despite the grievances over Bowyer's goal, the outcome was satisfactory at St Andrew's, where Everton are the sole visitors to have won this season. "We're still in a good position when you look at the bigger picture," the United midfielder Michael Carrick told MUTV. "We haven't lost, we're in good form and so we go into the next game [at West Brom on New Year's Day] looking to keep the momentum up."
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