The two Manchester clubs square off against each other on Monday night in arguably the biggest game in Premier League history. It’s the 162nd time these two sides face each other but the stakes have never been higher, the pressure never so intense. Such has been the anticipation ahead of kick off that the weekend’s games have seemed almost a side show, a tasty starter to wet the appetite before the mother of all derbies takes center stage.
Neither side has grabbed the initiative in the title race when the opportunity has risen, both falling prey to pressure and complacency. A 20th title looked all but certain for Manchester United with 10 minutes remaining at Old Trafford last week, but a stunning Everton fightback turned the whole title race on it’s head. United’s thinking went from winning the title at the Etihad on Monday night to losing it in a matter of a couple of minutes. Such are the fine margins we are dealing with as we approach kick-off.
Manchester City, on the other hand, have gone from league leaders to title chasers in a matter of 6 games. Five points ahead at one stage, they find themselves three behind after a disastrous run of form. The return of Carlos Tevez has rejuvenated them, however, and they go into this match as the bookies favorites.
No matter how much Sir Alex Ferguson may deny it, it is well and truly money against grit on Monday night. The money mongrels at City have spent lavishly, millions have changed hands under the new owners and a loss on Monday will be a massive slap in the face for them. It will be a psychological blow to have seen the title slip from their grasp and end up in their bitter neighbours’ trophy cabinet again. They will recover eventually, but the belief to go 38 games will take a heavy beating and could impact on several key personnel next season.
Manchester United’s story has been one of sheer determination this season. Labeled as one of the weakest squads in the Alex Ferguson reign, they have dug in and produced an incredible title challenge. After the 6-1 drubbing at the hands of City, all looked lost for them, the defending champions were “finished”, the balance of power had shifted to the blue half of Manchester where it would reside for the next few years. But yet again, a certain Scottish man had other ideas. He pulled the team back up and they went on a run of consecutive 1-0 wins that saw their faltering title challenge reignite amid chaos and humiliation.
The key to this game lies in the battle in midfield. Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes, while not the quickest midfield pairing, will be key to United’s chances. Scholes has been outstanding since his return If City drop off Scholes and allow him the freedom of the Etihad pitch, they will relinquish their grip on the game in the blink of an eye. Scholes loves to dictate the tempo and it will be up to Toure and De Jong to snuff out the threat of the ginger Englishman.
David Silva has suffered an alarming dip in form since December which has coincided with City’s lack of penetration. But United will be wary of the Spaniard after he dismantled them at Old Trafford in October, scoring and setting up his team mates while United stood off him at their own peril.
Roberto Mancini has a fully fit squad to choose from, with Mario Balotelli back after serving his 3 game ban. Carlos Tevez is expected to start up front again alongside the brilliant Sergio Aguero with Dzeko set for another game on the bench.
United have been boosted by the return of Nani in recent games but the Portuguese winger is a doubt after limping out of training on Saturday. Jonny Evans hasn’t trained all week but is expected to pass a late fitness test on Monday. Ferguson has to decide whether to start with the in-form Danny Welbeck or go with five across the center of the park to stifle out City’s midfield.
United got a semblance of vengeance when they dumped City out of the FA Cup in January but the true test of character lies at the Etihad on Monday night when close to 700 million viewers tune in to see the game of all games, the ultimate Manchester derby. Can Manchester United sneak a win and clinch their 20th Premier League title crown or will the Citizens finally throw off the shackles and take a step nearer to their first title triumph?