While Sir Alex Ferguson admits this season's Premier League is the most capricious in years, he expects the division to settle into a familiar pattern as the campaign heads into its second half.
United lead the table, with Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea all in close proximity, while Tottenham and Sunderland also lurk nearby. Of that cluster, Sir Alex expects second-placed Arsenal and reigning champions Chelsea to join the Reds in breaking for the line.
"It’s a funny league now," the United manager told his pre-Sunderland press conference. "The middle teams have certainly tightened up the league. There were indications last season when Tottenham got into the top four that things were changing; teams challenging that elite four that people spoke about for quite a few years.
"It changed and it looks as if it can change again; there’s a battle for fourth place again, and surprising teams like Bolton and Sunderland are challenging up there. You have to recognise that it’s a different type of league. At the end of the day I don’t think it’ll be anyone outside ourselves, Chelsea and Arsenal. I think those three will certainly be there."
The United manager hastened to make cases for the major strides taken by Tottenham and Manchester City, but expects the pair to feel the added pressure of juggling domestic and European commitments.
"Harry (Redknapp) is talking up his chances very well at Tottenham, but they’re involved in Europe now and it’s a new thing for them," said Sir Alex. "It’s not easy to combine European competition at that level, your league programme and FA Cup ties. It’s your experience that gets you through.
"City have got a chance, of course, that’s the other team. They also have the Europa League – that’s what makes it