Had Daniel Levy given Andre Villas-Boas the striker and midfielder he needed last summer, then Spurs would surely have finished above Arsenal. This was a predictable collapse...
The events of the past week have set up an exciting summer in the Premier League, but first, will Spurs leave it late on the final day? And Benitez deserves lots of credit...
Chelsea and Rafa Benitez
Over their blip and back in the title race after two excellent performances. Chelsea are now only four points behind Manchester City with a better goal difference, a game in hand against Southampton at home and seemingly much more confidence.
After the most tempestuous of honeymoon periods, Rafa Benitez has steadied the ship at Stamford Bridge, with Chelsea ready to resume a three-horse race in the Premier League if they can balance Thursday night exertions when the Europa League returns in February. Saturday's results had seen the Blues slip as low as seventh before the meeting with Aston Villa, but the misery of Club World Cup defeat to Corinthians was banished once and for all with a thoroughly ruthless display.
Shortly after arriving at Chelsea, Benitez asserted that the whole team should be looking to help Fernando Torres in the goal stakes, and the manager's tweaking of the Blues' system saw seven different goalscorers play a part in the 8-0 thrashing of Villa. By moving the impressive David Luiz - who has played 90 minutes in all eight league fixtures in which Chelsea have kept a clean sheet this season - into midfield, Benitez granted more freedom to the marauding trio ahead of the Brazilian, with Ramires also allowed to roam in the final half-hour.
I've written before about Benitez's battle with his 'short blanket' to ensure that the balance between defence and attack is spread evenly, and the manager will be delighted at his team's record of three wins, 14 goals scored and only one conceded in the three matches since the trip to Japan. Given Benitez's meticulous attention to detail, it's unlikely Chelsea will suddenly unravel in Sunday's tough test at Everton, and victory at Norwich was perfect preparation for that fixture.
In succeeding where Manchester United (and Arsenal, but with less emphasis to the point) have failed this season, the Blues have perhaps finally drawn a line between the previous vulnerability they showed under Roberto Di Matteo and their developing ability to adopt a more pragmatic approach. Victory at Carrow Road was built on a solid defensive display and Chelsea always have match-winners within their ranks to settle tight games, as Juan Mata proved with his fine strike.
Mata, in particular, will be key to Benitez's efforts to maintain Chelsea's charge at the top of the table and the Spaniard has now scored or assisted 14 goals in 16 top-flight appearances this campaign. But the Blues fired in 44 shots overall in the matches against Villa and Norwich, and there is enough creativity in the squad to allow Mata to be used economically.
Given that Everton always score and always concede this season, there is encouragement and concern for Benitez's team ahead of Sunday as they aim to keep in touching distance of City. Another victory would send a compelling message to their rivals.
Carrick isn't often given credit on F365 but, along with Robin van Persie, he has been one of United's most consistent performers this season. The fact that the team are conceding so many goals suggests he may be neglecting some of his duties (à la Alex Song last season) but the 31-year-old underlined his importance to the team with an outstanding second-half display against Newcastle, which included two fine assists.
Also rarely given credit, but Stoke's recent run of form has seen them jump to eighth and stand a good chance of a top-ten finish as we reach the half-way point. While Tony Pulis' team have been typically solid in defence this season, against Liverpool they tore off the shackles and scored more than two goals for the first time in 44 matches.
The Reds simply could not cope with Stoke's high pressing and combative style, and it was one of the rare occasions on which Pulis' team were genuinely enjoyable to watch.
Stoke need to maintain their goalscoring form from the Liverpool victory if they are to further establish themselves in the top half and a resurgent Kenwyne Jones will be crucial to that aim. Who knows, they might even sneak a result at City on New Year's day.
An excellent win at West Ham was followed by a hard-fought victory over Wigan as Everton dealt with the absence of Marouane Fellaini and maintained their fight for fourth. The Toffees have lost only two of their last 27 Premier League fixtures, but David Moyes may be concerned that his team have kept only two clean sheets this campaign, especially considering that goal-crazy Chelsea are next.
Spurs were rather subdued against Stoke, but bounced back in style to inflict more misery on Aston Villa in a 4-0 victory. Hat-trick hero Gareth Bale put in a superb performance, and the winger is possibly benefiting from a return to his old role in a 4-4-2 system, which Andre-Villas Boas has deployed in each of the last three matches.
Spurs have remained unbeaten over those three fixtures since the last-gasp defeat to Everton and the aim for Villas-Boas' team is to maintain consistency in the race for fourth. At the moment Spurs look the most likely to occupy the position at the end of the season, but if they continue to drop points at home it could cost them.
Steve Clarke and West Brom
A brilliant achievement to have guided West Brom to sixth - equal on points with Spurs in fourth - by the half-way point in his first season as a manager. The aim now is not to follow Blackpool or Hull's examples and fall away dramatically after the turn of the year.
A superb win against City lifted Sunderland back into mid-table and seven points clear of the relegation zone they occupied only three weeks ago.
Winners by default, as City allowed their rivals to stretch seven points clear after losing at Sunderland.
On paper, the four points United picked up in the two Christmas fixtures may seem like a reasonable haul. But the reality is they were laboured against Swansea and poor at home to Newcastle, requiring another late winner to save a tiresome debate over Papiss Cisse standing in an offside position for Jonny Evans' own goal. United may have shown typical desire in the last half-hour, but where is the convincing 90-minute team performance that Rio Ferdinand spoke about after the win over Arsenal at the start of November?
That Sir Alex Ferguson wasn't sent to the stands for his petulant haranguing of assistant referee Jake Collin was quite absurd and the manager seemed set to employ yet another diversion tactic after masking a sluggish performance at Swansea with claims that Robin van Persie could have been killed by Ashley Williams.
I would argue that Cisse was interfering with play on Wednesday by making 'a gesture/movement which deceives/distracts an opponent', but that shouldn't hide the fact that United struggled against a Newcastle side missing Yohan Cabaye, Cheick Tiote, Hatem Ben Arfa, Jonas Gutierrez and Steven Taylor, and who had won only two of their last 13 fixtures.
While the hosts also had several first-team players absent, United's worryingly weak bench and Ferguson's selection of 38-and-39-year-old pair Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes revealed a lack of squad depth that could prove costly in the Premier League when European competition returns in February.
And, as I wrote here, the team's problems in defence have become so severe that Ferguson appears to have no answer as to how they should or could be solved. "That was a really championship performance today," said the manager after the 4-3 victory over Newcastle, before cursory acknowledgment of another dreadful defensive display: "It does put us under tremendous pressure, continually losing goals."
United have now conceded 28 strikes in the Premier League this season - including three to Reading - and have been forced to come from behind on ten occasions in the top flight, eight of which have ended in victory. But frequent desperation will take its toll, and there are bound to be more matches in which Ferguson's team fail to fight back, such as the 1-0 defeat at Norwich.
Even Sunderland have conceded fewer goals than the Reds at the half-way point in the campaign, and the small gains of Robin van Persie's acquisition have been cancelled out by a porous back four and goalkeeper. Ferguson should consider himself fortunate that City have thus far failed to find their form in front of goal from the first half of last season.
United may go on to win the Premier League this year but, at the moment, beating an underperforming City would be far from the manager's 'greatest achievement', as he has previously claimed. And even if the Reds are triumphant, in the grand scheme of things they are merely stumbling along. There is no real improvement in the team between this year and last, and it seems one final cycle of sustained success may be beyond Ferguson.
A first goal and assist (through an exquisite pass to Steven Gerrard) for Liverpool in the Premier League. The winger is coming into form at the right time if he hopes to earn a move away from Anfield.
A poor defeat at home to Sunderland, but they showed plenty of life against Fulham. The form of Wigan and Aston Villa is reason for encouragement.
A scrappy win at Wigan and an extended Christmas break. They should be feeling fresh for Newcastle and Southampton.
After missing out on Morocco's squad for the Africa Cup of Nations, Taarabt should use the next five months to prove his talent and earn a stay in the top flight.
It was great bantz from the striker to reveal a 'Keep Calm & Pass Me The Ball' T-shirt after scoring against Southampton. Illusion shattered.
They'll struggle without the injured Michu.
David De Gea
Two goals in two matches conceded from the Spaniard parrying the ball back into a dangerous area.
A very good goalkeeper, but can we stop the 'best in the world' claims now?
The Premier League
Let's not fool ourselves into thinking that the open nature of the Premier League this season owes anything to an increase in quality.
There are two sides to every coin and while some may believe that United's abysmal defensive record (as a case in point) proves the rest of the league must be full of attacking quality, I'm more inclined to look at the performances of Newcastle and Reading - who both scored three times against the Reds - and consider that Ferguson's back four is malfunctioning. For the first time in the history of the Premier League two teams have picked up only one win after 19 games, and United struggled against both of them.
City have, at times, looked a shell of the side that blew away the competition in the first half of 2011/12, while Arsenal and Liverpool's ongoing battle to out-do each other in terms of worst starts to a season demonstrates the decline of both. That West Brom - who, without wanting to take away credit, are no more than a functional team who play simple football - stand in fifth, only six points behind City, shows that the top teams are failing to fire.
It's enjoyable to have such an open league, with smaller clubs still in the battle for fourth, but how entertaining is it to watch matches riddled with errors and poor play rather than teams having to be at the top of their game to overcome opponents?
A Premier League in which Stoke sit in eighth - despite having scored just 18 goals in 19 matches - is a Premier League which lacks quality. Perhaps it would be preferable if it meant the break-up of the top-four monopoly, but United, City and Chelsea still occupy the top three spots, while regular challengers Spurs are in fourth.
A typically dismal festive performance at Swansea was followed by a knee injury in training on Christmas Day that has ruled the striker out for three weeks. Tis certainly not the season for Rooney.
He should have left in the summer.
Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers
One step forward, two steps back as an outstanding victory against struggling Fulham was followed by a 3-1 humbling at Stoke.
Brendan Rodgers had no excuses after Liverpool's poor display at the Britannia and bemoaned his team's lack of consistency, which has already left him blushing recently after the home defeat to Aston Villa. The Reds were out-hussled by Stoke and looked worryingly weak in midfield, with Lucas Leiva replaced by Jordan Henderson on the hour mark. It was perhaps a match too far for the Brazilian after his recent return to fitness, and he struggled against the hosts' combative approach.
"We are looking to improve that (the consistency) and there is an awful lot of work to do," said Rodgers after Wednesday's defeat. It wasn't the first time the manager has spoken about the long road ahead, but with Liverpool dropping back down to tenth - eight points away from fourth - the manager is under pressure to bring improvement at a quicker rate than has thus far been achieved. Is it not possible to change the style of play and pick up results at the same time? This is the lowest number of points Liverpool have ever had after 19 games since the three points for a win rule was introduced, and the Reds still haven't beaten any of the teams who sit above them in the top half of the table.
The jury is still out on Rodgers, but reports linking Liverpool with a move for Franco Di Santo hardly inspire confidence that the manager is building a team capable of mounting an assault on the top four. Rodgers seems obsessed with filling his squad with players he has worked with previously, but a coach with such a vaunted 'philosophy' should surely be able to impress his ideas on new players he has to work with.
At the moment, the Di Santo deal is only speculation, but if the Reds do follow up their apparent interest in January it will be difficult to look at them as anything more than a mid-table club with a lack of ambition. How long will Luis Suarez want to stay if he's forced to play with teammates of Di Santo's quality when a simple transfer request could see him return to the Champions League?
Rodgers has warned that there are no quick fixes in the January window, but with sufficient backing from FSG the eight-point gap to fourth is still surmountable. If the owners fail to act and the manager fails to find the right talent to improve results, the club's fans will surely start to become restless at what has proved to be a rather uninspiring project thus far. A top ten finish may be just enough for Rodgers to earn another season, but his team is capable of performing better than they have done in the first half of the campaign and it's the manager's job to ensure that performances and consistency quickly improve.
Man City and Roberto Mancini
A Mancini-time 1-0 win against Reading and another defeat at Sunderland was hardly what the manager would have hoped for over the Christmas fixture list as City slipped seven points behind United.
With Yaya Toure set to depart for the Africa Cup of Nations, now isn't the ideal time for City to start stumbling in the league and Mancini will have one eye over his shoulder at Chelsea as his team continue to be inconsistent. It may be a hangover from the Champions League exit, but City have eased the pressure off United since the start of December and look as though they are waiting for the Reds to run into poor form, rather than usurping them by their own means. Mancini has to find some inspiration from somewhere.
Two games, no goals scored and 12 conceded. That's the curse of topping the Winners column before Christmas.
A spirited performance at the Etihad, but it would be incredible if Reading survive from this position.
Mo Money, Mo Problems. QPR should cut their losses and prepare for the worst. The last thing they need is more high-earners on the books before impending relegation.
Matt Stanger - he's on the Twitter.