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As we enter the final stage of the season the strength of Manchester United's squad - the main reason for their incredible 15-point lead at the top of the table on Saturday night - is becoming increasingly apparent. In the space of ten days United have put themselves in an excellent position to reach the Champions League quarter-finals, progressed to the same stage in the FA Cup and continued their relentless pursuit to reclaim the Premier League title. No fewer than 21 players have been used in the last three fixtures, emphasising Sir Alex Ferguson's claim that this is the strongest squad he has ever worked with.
In a fascinating interview with the Guardian on Friday, Roberto Mancini argued that Robin van Persie's decision to join United instead of Manchester City in the summer has made the difference at the top this season. But while the striker has predictably had a huge impact with 19 Premier League strikes, including the winner against City at the Etihad, he has not been the only difference between the two clubs. There is more to United than first meets the eye and, true to form, they have continued to improve following the festive period.
Nemanja Vidic's recovery from injury has highlighted the Reds' strength in depth and Ferguson noted the captain's experience after the routine victory over QPR. It's no coincidence that United have kept five clean sheets in the 13 matches following Vidic's return to training and although the defender still isn't fit enough to play every game, he has certainly played a part in solving the defensive concerns Ferguson previously claimed he 'couldn't get to the bottom of'.
The most important factor in United's improvement, though, has been the manager's shrewd rotation of his squad to meet the various demands of a busy fixture list. The three league defeats United suffered before the end of November all pointed to Ferguson's poor team selection, but since the 3-2 victory over City at the Etihad, United have been almost unstoppable, with the manager exhibiting a much clearer understanding of how and when to change his team.
"It's not easy to rotate but it has to be done," Ferguson said recently. "The biggest responsibility lies with me to pick the right team. We have a lot of important games."
By assembling a versatile squad with a mix of experience and youthful exuberance, Ferguson has ensured United are capable of adapting to different challenges, exemplified by Phil Jones' deployment in a man-marking midfield role. A month ago, few would have named Jones as the man to marshal Cristiano Ronaldo at the Santiago Bernabeu, but the 20-year-old's excellent performance in the first leg is testament to Ferguson's careful construction of a balanced group and development of young players who are now playing significant roles in the first team.
Similarly, Javier Hernandez's 15 strikes this season, the majority of which have been scored from the bench, have underlined the manager's claim that United's forward options are the strongest he has ever had available. It's one thing to possess the right quality, though, and another to maximise its potential, with Ferguson currently making all the right decisions over his combinations in the final third.
Of course, last season has taught us that there is still time for United to slip up and Ferguson has warned that the team "will feel the full effect of the hairdryer" if there is a repeat of the 4-4 draw at home to Everton which saw City regain the advantage on their march to the title. But a month ago the focus was on how long United could maintain their lead in the Premier League, whereas now the discussion is about how far they can go on three fronts. It will be enormously difficult to maintain their challenge in the Champions League, but with Ferguson now having a tighter grip on squad rotation, a domestic double is certainly not beyond United's capabilities.
Matt Stanger - he's on the Twitter.
Jericho, Boll##. Why is that when United are on the verge of winning the League that some people say that everyone else is s##te instead of United just been well very good. If City comeback & win the League will every team still be sh##e or will City be just amazing.- keano81