Rio Ferdinand claims Manchester United's title ambitions rest on Sir Alex Ferguson's squad ignoring the neighbours and "keeping our own house in order" after conceding there was too much focus on Mancunian rivalry last season. With United and champions Manchester City maintaining their grip on the top two positions in the Premier League table throughout the festive programme, only Chelsea appear capable of preventing a repeat of last season's North West stranglehold on the title race.
United's seven-point lead at the top has increased the pressure on Roberto Mancini's team to overcome the month-long loss of midfielder Yaya Toure to Africa Cup of Nations duty to stay in touch with their city rivals. But if the title race does become a two-horse race between United and City, Ferdinand insists United will learn from last season after allowing the novelty factor to become a -distraction.
Ferdinand said last year the title race with City "was new because it was the first time they had challenged properly and there was a lot of focus on Manchester", while adding that, "This time, we have to make sure we keep our own house in order and make sure we keep ticking off the games. We don't have to focus on anyone else, just ourselves. Last season, we made it difficult for ourselves. We saw the problems that we had last time but we have rectified them and put them to the sword."
City's league double over United last season ultimately proved decisive in the outcome of the title race, but United's 3-2 victory at the Etihad Stadium last month has enabled them to move clear of their neighbours. Robin van Persie's 16 Premier League goals in 18 starts for United since his summer arrival from Arsenal, having rejected a move to City, have tilted the balance in favour of -Ferguson's team.
But City captain Vincent Kompany believes his team's success in overturning an eight-point deficit in six games to win the league proves their ability to overhaul United again. "A couple of years ago, if we had fallen seven points behind, we would all have said to ourselves that it would be very difficult," Kompany said. "But now we have done it, nobody panics.
"Everything is still possible. We have proved what we can do and everybody is very calm. That's the advantage you get when you win it once. The reason we are not closer to United is not that we have been playing badly. We have only lost two games, which is not a bad record at this stage of the season, but United are doing extremely well. If they continue to play like they have been doing, it will be difficult, but we are perfectly capable of having a long, long winning streak that will bring us very close. It is a good -challenge."
"It is a big challenge, but that doesn't make it any less interesting. When you have won the title, you aim for another one. That is not just the ambition for 2013, but for the future of the club."
Van Persie's impact at United has already been cited by Mancini as potentially decisive. Mancini admitted last week that he believed City were close to securing the Dutch forward's -signature early last summer prior to his decision to move to United. But despite the goals he has scored at Old Trafford, Ferdinand insisted that Van Persie was only one element of the team at United.
"No matter how you win the league, it is always mainly down to a group of players rather than one individual," Ferdinand said. "At the moment, he is scoring the goals, but Javier Hernandez has chipped in the last couple of games too. But Robin is an important player and the manager saw something in him and made it his mission to buy him this summer.
"At the moment, thankfully, he is doing what he came here to do. He is not only scoring goals. He holds the ball up well and brings others into play. He does a fantastic job. It is a great place for players to come to if you are willing to come in, work hard and be a member of the team. But we are not at the end of the season yet."
"No medals have been handed out and we don't want to jump about too much. Up to now he has done fantastically well, but the job is still there to be done."