So here it is then, the moment that the football community has long been hoping for: a Premier League title shoot-out between Manchester City and Manchester United.
It doesn’t need any more hyperbole from me – Sky Sports are seeing to that – but it is not an exaggeration to say that in 161 previous Manchester derbies, few have been more pivotal, certainly not in deciding the destination of England’s top prize.
The situation, as if you need reminding, is thus: United lead City by three points with an inferior (and more than likely unassailable) goal difference, which means two things.
Firstly, Roberto Mancini’s men must emerge victorious if they are to retain a realistic hope of landing a first top-flight title since 1968 and secondly, Sir Alex Ferguson has been forced to publicly admit that City have gone from ‘noisy neighbours’ to serious contenders, saying this week for the first time in 26 years that his local derby ‘supersedes’ fixtures against Liverpool.
Such is the peculiar nature of the league table, we are in a situation where United could win the league by taking five points from their last three games but lose it by winning six, which sums up a rather strange year in the Premier League where quality has been lacking but excitement certainly hasn’t.
And excitement will certainly be rife on Monday evening: in fact, the only person who isn’t looking forward to the match is probably poor old referee Andre Marriner (a disappointed Ferguson was unable to call upon Howard Webb for this fixture and there is no doubt United will miss his influence greatly).
It is perceived wisdom that momentum has swung back in City’s favour and it easy to see why people think that: a 1-0 defeat at Arsenal three weeks ago left the Citizens eight points behind United after leading by five just weeks earlier.
But slips from the Red Devils (a defeat at Wigan and twice throwing away a two-goal lead in the remarkable 4-4 draw against Everton last weekend) have given City a fighting chance and though I think ‘momentum’ will play no part, I do think at 6/5 the home side should be backed to gleefully take that chance with both hands.
The draw is priced up at 23/10 with United quoted at the same odds and though United will understandably have their backers – they have been in these situations many times before and it takes a brave (foolish?) man to bet against them – City have the quality to trouble a United back-line that has shown vulnerability on several occasions this season.
The only person who isn’t looking forward to the match is probably poor old referee Andre Marriner (a disappointed Ferguson was unable to call upon Howard Webb for this fixture and there is no doubt United will miss his influence greatly).
Sheikh Mansour has spent millions and millions of pounds on attracting the world’s top talent exactly for nights like this and I look at the players on show and see a group who are not going to cower in this environment: Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero is a formidable spine and I don’t have the same confidence in the core of United’s side, Wayne Rooney apart.
I have always felt City have the better personnel but the Ferguson factor looked as though it would get United over the line in what is a transition season for the Red Devils.
It still might – even if City win, their remaining two games at Newcastle and home to QPR will be difficult tests – but for me, the Citizens have the better players, as demonstrated in the 6-1 win at Old Trafford earlier in the season, and the importance of the occasion can bring the best out of them.
Even in defeat against United in the FA Cup, City emerged with the credit having played 80 minutes with ten men and looking the better side in the second half.
That has proved a rare blip at home for City. Their Premier League record at the Etihad is incredible: 16 wins and a draw from 17 fixtures this season with 51 goals scored is remarkable and I think they have the edge in the most monumental of derbies.
Recommended bet: Manchester City to win @ 6/5
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