After the weekend’s drama of United drawing with Everton and City winning and relegating Wolves, attention turns to next Monday.
This may be the earliest Derby preview on the web, but I won’t be discussing teams and tactics, (likely to change in the six days from penning this column) but focus on the importance of mentality between the two teams.
Do Manchester City have the bottle to win such a season defining game against their seemingly forever more successful rivals?
You know what you are going to get from Manchester United, and since they were hammered by City at home in the reverse fixture in October they have been pretty steady.
United even went some way to banish those derby demons in January, knocking City out of the F.A. Cup with a 3-2 win at the Etihad. But the manner of that victory, City coming back from 3-0 down at half-time to nearly mount a memorable comeback will only worry United going into this game.
City have been unbelievable at home in the league this season, winning 16 out of a possible 17 fixtures and for the most part sweeping aside their opponents with ease, highlighted by their plus 41 goal difference on their own turf.
Their one blip, (if you can call it that) was a 3-3 draw with Sunderland recently when City did look like they were on their way to a first home defeat. That spell of poor form, where Mancini’s men took just five points out of 15 seemed destined to end their bid for a first ever Premier League title.
However in recent weeks the Mancunian pendulum has swung back their way, as they put their abysmal Emirates stadium defeat behind their to record three straight victories.
On the other hand, United have looked slightly shaky with the finish line in sight, first losing to Wigan and then conceding two late goals to draw at home with Everton. Fergie may have thought he had the title in the bag, but if City win on Monday they go top. How things could change.
Fergie has admitted this derby will be the ‘most important’ of his 25 year career at Old Trafford. Faint praise perhaps, as he has spent most of those two-and-a-half decades challenging Liverpool as their biggest derby rivals while ignoring City and only recently labelling them ‘noisy neighbours’.
But only two weeks ago United looked home and dry, with pundits and fans alike ascertaining the trophy was heading back to the Champions for a record 20th time.
Fergie must have even started to think about putting daylight between United’s league haul of 19 and Liverpool’s 18.
MM writer James McLaughlin was so confident in his team’s chances of bagging the title a few weeks ago that he told me he was hoping United could wrap it up before derby day, seemingly more worried about City not agreeing to perform a guard of honour for United than anything else.
But the tables have certainly turned, or at least have been turning ahead of Monday night. The question everyone is sure to be asking is which City will turn up?
The one that destroyed United 6-1 and dismantled Spurs 5-1, both away from home earlier in the season, or the team that were outplayed by Arsenal and Bayern Munich.
This fixture will be on home soil, so perhaps we will see the more consistent City we are used to at the Etihad, but United will be quietly confident themselves, holding all the experience cards and the belief that they can win at their rivals place just like they did in January.
It promises to be an intriguing and exciting evening, and the great thing about it is that it isn’t the end of the title race, whichever way the points go.
That is because both club’s are still to travel to the North East, with City to play in-form Newcastle and United yet to face Sunderland.
United also need to overcome a potential banana skin at home against Swansea, whilst City versus QPR at the Etihad has the chance to be an upset given the R’s recent revival and determination to stay up.
Make no mistakes Monday night will be crucial in the destination of the league trophy this season, but it will not be case closed whatever the outcome, as this topsy turvy title race looks set to provide a few more twists and turns.
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