Following the gift of Manchester City's failure to find a way past Queens Park Rangers last night, Manchester United will have an opportunity tonight to take another huge step towards the Premier League title. Before the game kicks off, they are clear favourites to lift the trophy at the end of the season, and with all likelihood, the same will be true after the final whistle. In the wider context of things, it is for once a surprise.
Manchester United are a deeply flawed team. It doesn't need to be said, but to get all Shakespearean, let us count the ways: the midfield is the most obvious, teetering between non-existence and incompetence, a much-hyped Michael Carrick invariably partnered with Tom Cleverley (too inconsistent), Phil Jones (too limited), Anderson (too unfit), Paul Scholes (too old), or Ryan Giggs (too much like a 40-year-old winger.) In goal, David de Gea's shot-stopping has impressed, but he has undoubtedly been at fault for a number of goals conceded. In defence, Patrice Evra continues to be vulnerable, while Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic have both been restricted by injuries. On the wings, Antonio Valencia is a shadow of his former self while Nani continues to blow hot and cold as United try to force his departure. Up front, Danny Welbeck has played well but his goalscoring has completely dried up, while Wayne Rooney has once again gone missing for a large swathe of the season.
That's just the individual, tangible problems. More broadly, United have had fewer convincing wins than ever before, have generally found it difficult to play two consecutive halves of good football, and have looked vulnerable at the back.
Now that we've done the cons, let's look at the strengths of the team. Rafael has had an excellent season. Jonny Evans continues to look the part. Javier Hernandez has been lethal. Robin van Persie has been a revelation. They've scored plenty of goals. And, er, that's it.
The most curious feature of this United team is that despite the flaws, they appear to be the ultimate team for all seasons, able to dig themselves out of any situation. It's a team that has for a long time now been running on the fumes of a 'winning mentality', and the sheer art of somehow finding a way, any way throughout the year. A lot of people thought the previous season would be their last, but as they've continued for one last hurrah, a winning mentality is virtually all they have left. Fortunately, just as they've been left with it as their sole weapon, they appear to have perfected it.
So far, United are on course for this to be one of their best years in big games of the entire Ferguson era. A rare double over Liverpool has been matched with victories at Manchester City and Chelsea. None of them were easy, and a couple of them perhaps even undeserved, but nonetheless, there they are.
The strange fact at the heart of United is that they're a team with many flaws but no real weaknesses. Compare them to their rivals: Manchester City have struggled with finding the right formation, and have problems with away form and breaking determined defences down. At United, experiments with a diamond aside, the formation has remained the same as it has for the past six years - slight variations on 4-2-3-1. Away form and home form have been near-indistinguishable, while they've looked to outscore any opposition.
Chelsea, meanwhile, have had problems with home form under Rafael Benitez, and have frequently blundered into a couple of traps in team selection which have thrown a spanner in the works. Ferguson's obsession with versatility in recent years means that, while bizarre team selections are very much a feature, they all work on a basic level. United remain the only team where the teamsheet can be announced an hour before kick-off and it could be any one of six different arrangements, each one equally likely.
Ultimately, weaknesses like the ones Chelsea and City have scupper title bids - mysterious, intangible problems which plague a team over the course of an entire season. It's possible to win the league with a weakness at something solid and obvious like having a weak left-back, or ineffective wingers. It's not possible to win it with a more mysterious problem, like continually conceding late goals, or struggling away from home. After all, the former can be noticed, analysed, and allowances can be made. It's not the case with the latter kind of problem, and it's usually one of those that second-placed teams end up saddled with, driving managers grey and nail-bitten at facing a chronic disease to which the cure is unknown.
That is the reason why Manchester United are favourites, despite possession a far weaker and more flawed squad than either Chelsea or Manchester City. It may be that at the end of the season Ferguson, Giggs and Scholes all ride into the sunset together and take that sense of surety with them, but for now, United's strength makes an odd sort of sense: a team with many flaws, but few weaknesses.