You've had the banter by now. You should have because it's getting a little stale. Manchester United are on a run of six straight premier league wins and yet have occupied sixth place on the log throughout their reward!
Whilst the league table has not reflected United's form, it is a measure of how far off the pace they had fallen off during October and November when the club continuously failed to turn dominant performances into results. Ahead of December, United were starring at up to eight points off the Champions League places. That in itself was and is a measure of the challenge those ahead of them possess.
In emerging from that and becoming the country's in-form side, United have had to first claw back the gap between them and the elite positions. As it stands, just two points separate the club from 4th. That is the improvement that merits applaud.
This current Manchester United is much less a 'still-in-transition team' and more of a settled side that has taken to book their manager's ideas. That United impose themselves on the opposition has very much become the norm these days. They've purred in just about every one of those 9 straight wins, so much so that you cannot point at any one of those results as a 'lucky' one.This is the fruition of the domination that didn't worry the manager during the pre-winter run of draws.
The Manchester United juggernaut however faces it's toughest examination since that run started this Sunday. All the while, talk has been silent on the Old Trafford terraces about a title bid. And rightly so. Chelsea would have to lose four games (or lose points of the equivalent) between now and May whilst United win just about all theirs to win overtake the West London side. Even so, there's five sides ahead of United, better placed to take advantage of any slip by the current pacesetters.
Realistically, United can obviously still target a smart finish in the league. That by itself is a formidable challenge considering the form of the current top six. Indeed, United could still beat Liverpool this weekend and still start next week in sixth place! Forget the fairy tale of the season past, the top dogs are standing up for themselves this time and it's all too apparent when you consider the gap between 6th and 7th.
Regardless the collective form of the top six, six simply doesn't go into four! Two good teams will fail to qualify for the Champions league come May. It means that whilst their collective form against the rest of the league is good, the top six positions will be determined by their results against each other. This is what puts Sunday's fixture into context for United. The club has so far not fared quite well against its rivals and that is why they find themselves behind the lot. The victory over Spurs at Old Trafford is the only notable domestic result note. Sunday is an opportunity to improve on that.
More than that, it remains a derby of profound importance to fans. Victory would massively build on the confidence of the players to continue a winning run that could force statisticians to dig up a few club records. United have suffered a dearth of confidence after a few bad results this season. It took a great while to overcome defeat to Manchester City in September. The reverse was true when the club held out to beat Spurs at Old Trafford. A lot about what lies ahead therefore rests on the outcome this Sunday.