Who will be this Premier League season's Macheda?

The lesson from last year is the league could be decided by someone else, whether a marginal figure, a youngster or a player plucked from the past.

Federico Macheda, second right, is mobbed by United teammates after his dramatic winner last year.
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Sir Alex Ferguson coined a phrase to describe the business end of the season. Or he probably did, anyway. "Squeaky bum time," was invented by the Manchester United manager. We think. The assembled journalists struggled to decipher the Glaswegian accent and were unsure if he actually said "squeeze your bum time". They took a vote and opted for the squeaky option.

Last year a different description applied: "Macheda time". Federico Macheda was catapulted from obscurity by scoring arguably the two most important goals of the title race. His April winners against Aston Villa and Sunderland gave United renewed momentum to cross the finishing line first. Now the three major contenders have each provided a candidate for the Footballer of the Year award. Wayne Rooney, Didier Drogba and Cesc Fabregas have made huge contributions to their sides' challenges. Yet the lesson from last year is the league could be decided by someone else, whether a marginal figure, a youngster or a player plucked from the past.

Sounds unlikely? Perhaps. But consider the composition of the United bench against Fulham: Tomasz Kuszczak, Fabio da Silva, Oliver Gill, Corry Evans, Gabriel Obertan, Ji-sung Park and Mame Biram Diouf. With the notable exception of the goalkeeper and the South Korean, all are untried; several would not even be in Ferguson's second 11 if everyone was fit. But it is not just the celebrated super-subs Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who prove the significance of strength in depth at Old Trafford: look at Lee Martin, Les Sealey and Macheda.

A glance at Chelsea's goal on Saturday was instructive, too. There was no Petr Cech, who will also miss tonight's match against Inter Milan, but the third choice, Ross Turnbull. He was relatively untroubled by West Ham in Chelsea's 4-1 win but Cech's understudy Henrique Hilario's hapless display against Manchester City was one factor in a 4-2 defeat. In the final reckoning, the title may have been determined by substandard goalkeeping.

As neither Manuel Almunia nor Lukasz Fabianski has had a season to savour, it could cost Arsenal. Arsene Wenger's replacements at Hull, meanwhile, included the teenagers Fran Merida and Craig Eastmond. Indeed, given his litany of misses against Burnley a week before, there was something unlikely about Nicklas Bendtner's transformation into the matchwinner seven days later at the KC Stadium. Stranger still is the renaissance of another central figure. Sol Campbell's journey from England's fourth tier, League Two, with Notts County to the Champions League in his second spell at Arsenal still defies belief. Wenger's decision not to sign any other cover for Thomas Vermaelen and the sidelined William Gallas can be questioned, but it adds to the spectacle. There is something valiant about the sight of the 35-year-old, whose decline was evident in his final season at Portsmouth, calling upon his vast experience and considerable physical power in his attempts to halt opponents he would have swatted aside in his prime. This is a man at the limit, who has nothing more to give but one who, so far, has let no one down.

An entire sub-genre of Westerns has been based on a similar concept. The great is brought back from retirement for one last job, endangering his reputation for a noble cause. The showdown at the summit of the Premier League may be settled by one of the most feared gunslingers in the land, but it is far from guaranteed. To continue the analogy, a year ago, Macheda was, if not the Man with No Name, but the man whose name was unknown. And look how things changed.