The Premier League title can be theirs tonight. But as his side stand on the threshold of a 20th championship against Aston Villa, Sir Alex Ferguson has looked beyond the accomplishment, declaring his Manchester United players are capable of surpassing Chelsea's record Premier League points tally by winning their last five games.
There is an excellent symmetry about United reaching this landmark – 20 years after Ferguson secured the first of his 13 – and though five straight wins looks like a challenge, with Arsenal and Chelsea to play in a seven-day period from Saturday, Ferguson said the 95 points Jose Mourinho's Chelsea secured in 2004-05 was an achievable target.
"It's not beyond the team at all. If you are asking if Manchester United can win five games in a row, well how many times have we done that?" the manager asked. "So it's not beyond us."
A total of 12 points from their remaining five games would see this United team break the club record 92 points secured by the 1994 Double-winning side. United can also still beat their own best winning margin of 18 points, set in 2000.
Even for Ferguson, a manager disinclined to count his chickens before they have hatched, the conjecture reached beyond the question of United reclaiming the title long before Manchester City's defeat at Tottenham yesterday. It revolves, of course, around the issue of how this team of designate -champions compares with others who have clinched the title for him.
Harry Redknapp declared on Sunday that this group was not as good as the Treble-winning side of 1999: the "pick of the bunch," as the Queen's Park Rangers manager described them. Ferguson did not dismiss the idea that the challenge had been weaker in a season when City have lost momentum and Arsenal and Chelsea suffered implosions.
"If we win the league, the team has to be considered in terms of other teams, there is no doubt about that," Ferguson said. But he clearly judges the points total as the prime indicator. "The points tally will tell you," he said. "We currently have 81 and we won the league in 1993 with 84 and we have five games left. Hopefully we can get to the nineties. Only Chelsea and ourselves have won it in the nineties."
In this discussion, Ferguson underestimated by three points the 90-point total that Arsenal secured in the year of the "Invincibles" – 2004 – but he did not disguise his feeling that the way City took last season's title left him with a monumental challenge. That must be factored in to any assessment of the 20th title. "I think we had a big job to do, you know? The way we lost it helped us really and the fact that it was City gave us an incentive."
He is looking to the composition of next season's squad already, observing as he prepares to face Paul Lambert's relegation-threatened Villa that Rio Ferdinand is receptive to signing an extension to the £130,000-a-week contract which expires this summer. "I have spoken to him and obviously at this moment in time he is more concerned about getting an opponent for his testimonial game," Ferguson said. "He is working on that, but we want him to stay and obviously I am sure his representatives will be discussing things with [chief executive] David Gill. "I would imagine that [staying] would be the best thing for him."
On the question of squad surgery in the summer, Ferguson said he thought it would "be minor" and at the forefront of his mind is his sense that the players who are 23 and under will improve. Shinji Kagawa, who is now beginning to display the ability United had hoped for when they signed him last summer, is clearly a major prospect for next season – a cause for concern for Wayne Rooney, who is vying with him for a role behind Robin van Persie.
"We have a reasonable group of young players from 23 years down," Ferguson said. "There is a resilience about this team. The consistency has been good and, like all the previous teams, they never give in, and that's a fact. The history of the club, more than anything, is what the players who have been here for two or three years buy into and do well. I think that these are the qualities that have helped them to be where they are right now."
Ashley Young has been ruled out for the rest of the season with an ankle injury, so will not face his former side tonight, while Paul Scholes is still recovering from a knee injury.
The only way City can frustrate Ferguson now is by denying him the chance to clinch the title when his players are actually on the pitch, by failing to beat West Ham United next weekend – an outcome contingent on United not winning tonight. Ferguson reflected on how that could hurt him – or not. This is a manager who has won titles when playing golf, working out in the gym and, as he remembered it, "watching the snooker – the World Championship final was on…"
29 United need four wins to better Chelsea's PL record of 29 in a season
22.4.13 If United win tonight, they will have won the title in the joint-second quickest time in terms of date. Their fastest came in 2001, clinching the title on 14 April
18 United can still beat their own best winning points margin of 18, set in 1999-00
95 They also have the chance to beat Chelsea's record points tally of 95 from 2004-05