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Saturday, 22 April, 2000, 15:54 GMT 16:54 UK
Old Trafford's domestic dominance
Manchester United are now making winning the Premiership title look easy. But are they simply better than the chasing pack or do they just have different priorities?
Not since the 1993-94 season have Alex Ferguson's men found it so straightforward to stroll to Premiership glory.
And for much of this season, their attacking play has not been as fluent, their defensive play nowhere near as commanding as the side which boasted such heavyweights as Eric Cantona, Steve Bruce, and Gary Pallister.
Current skipper Roy Keane had been signed for a then British transfer record fee of £3.75m from Nottingham Forest - and buoyed by winning their first top-division title since 1967, United went into the season sizzling with confidence.
As though an albatross had been lifted from around their neck, the team had opened up a 13-point lead by Christmas and by April, a unique domestic treble was still on the cards.
Similarly to the 1999-2000 season however, it was in European competition where all eyes were focused - the club, manager, players and fans.
Winning domestic trophies was all well and good - but everyone connected with Manchester United had only one thing on their mind.
And that was being given the chance to compete for the Holy Grail, the European Cup.
Hampered by the three-foreigner rule, Alex Ferguson was unable to play his first-choice side, and that combined with a tangible fear of European opposition, led to them being despatched from the competition in the second round by Galatasaray.
The treble winning antics of 1999, again brought a particular chapter to an end for a club so historically connected with European competition.
Maybe, that is why they have made winning the Premiership look so easy.
Two separate supreme attacking partnerships, Roy Keane's relentless combativeness, Beckham's crossing ability and Paul Scholes' world-class skill, have driven the side to a Premiership goal-scoring record which has helped to cover-up defensive frailties.
While other clubs in the chasing pack - Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Leeds - have felt under increasing pressure to end Manchester United's dominance, Alex Ferguson and his ever-increasing squad, have simply been concentrating on more important matters.
One European Cup is all well and good, but two or three is better.
Until last Wednesday's Champions League defeat at the hands of Real Madrid, Man Utd really did have their minds on other things.
That seems to have meant, while not even playing particularly well for much of the season, the players have moved from one opponent to the next, be it Arsenal, Leeds, or Liverpool, tucked away a positive result, and then switched their attention back to European competition.
The benefits of an injury-free season for the most part, should not be underestimated either, and some would say, a lack of involvement in the FA Cup, can only have helped their cause.
Man Utd admittedly performed poorly in the World Club Championship in Rio, and the majority could be forgiven for thinking spending a couple of mid-winter weeks in the rejuvenating South American sunshine, playing a little football, was a help to the team rather than a hindrance.
There have been many excuses and explanations given by the managers of Man Utd's closest rivals for their lack of success this season.
Arsenal's Arsene Wenger felt his schedule overcrowded at times, Leeds manager David O'Leary admitted his young squad would need more time, and Gerard Houllier, fairly, may have hoped the season had started two months later.
Gianluca Vialli has faced similar pressure to Alex Ferguson this season in coming up against top-notch European opponents week in week out.
But despite having reached the European Cup quarter finals and the FA Cup Final - and being the only team in the top six to beat Man Utd this season - Chelsea's Premiership form has once again been exceedingly disappointing.
To most clubs, winning the Premiership would be achievement enough in itself, although executives would obviously see the pound signs in front of their eyes at the chance to compete in the financially-rewarding Champions League.
At Manchester United, it seems as though every Premiership title won, is simply a means to an end.
Domestic competition is there solely as a gateway to the higher echelons of football - and the chance to pack yet another European trophy in to the cabinet.
Until Manchester United match the achievements of the Liverpool side of the 1980s, they will continue to have the hunger needed not necessarily to secure titles - but to secure Champions League involvement - by now, it is second nature.
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Links to other FA Carling Premiership stories are at the foot of the page.
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