Welcome to Manchester! Game of Thrones as City and United face off in title showdown
22:59 GMT, 29 April 2012
There has never been a Premier League encounter quite like this one. A game that could alter the English football landscape; that could determine whether Manchester United remain the dominant force or instead have to step aside for their mega-rich neighbours.
It is, as Sir Alex Ferguson said, the derby of derbies; a match that will enthral the masses in more than 650million homes across 212 territories around the world.
But it is also a game that amounts to something of a nightmare for those more directly involved as well as those living a little closer to the Etihad Stadium.
Ready to rumble: Sir Alex Ferguson and Wayne Rooney arrive back home
Massive: Ryan Giggs has played in over 900 games and this is one of the biggest
After almost 26 years in charge at Old Trafford, Ferguson understands that better than anyone. He knows for 500,000 Mancunians the prospect of waking up tomorrow as the loser of the Man Clasico is terrifying.
Workers will cry off sick, kids will want to skip school. Facing jubilant Blues or victorious Reds will be too much. For some, it will be too much even to sit and watch the game.
‘I’ve just asked a mate to text me the result,’ one Manchester born-and-bred United season-ticket holder told me at the weekend. ‘But City fans are as scared of losing as we are. We’re all scared to death.’
A victory for Manchester City could mark a shift in power and the words of Roberto Mancini will only reinforce that view. City’s Italian manager hopes a win will propel his side to the first of many titles and so break United’s stranglehold on the English game. It would certainly land a devastating psychological blow.
When Ferguson gave his press conference on Thursday, he seemed resigned to the fact that United will not be able to hold off City for ever. He remains determined and defiant, but he must realise his ‘not in my lifetime’ speech amounted to nothing more than wishful thinking.
The Man Clasico: Antonio Valencia, Javier Hernandez and Antonio Valencia
Murky: Manchester City players trained in the rain
Soon after City moved from Maine Road
to the Etihad, Ferguson jokingly dismissed the new stadium as the
‘Temple of Doom’. Today it does not sound half as funny. Ferguson
admitted he would not enjoy going there on Monday, the fact that City
have superseded Liverpool as United’s main rival making him
partly why he described himself as a masochist. He has knocked Liverpool
off their perch, he has come out on top in his personal duels with
Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho but City are different — and he knows
Their almost limitless wealth and
obvious determination to brush United aside make City a far more
dangerous adversary. Financial fair play Michel Platini will be at the
game but don’t expect Ferguson to turn to UEFA’s president for help. He
recognises how difficult it will be to enforce fair-play rules against a
club who can raise 300m from a shirt sponsorship deal.
Did Ferguson take his players away to Cardiff at the weekend in the hope of replicating the positive effect a trip to St Andrews had on his squad Perhaps so, but the trip may have also been motivated by a need for them to escape the intense atmosphere that has been building in the city since United dropped two points against Everton last Sunday.
Whatever the result, tonight will be so much more significant than that staggering 6-1 win City enjoyed at Old Trafford in October. It could lead to Ferguson clinching a 13th Premier League title or cement Mancini’s position across town, with Ferguson understanding that stability at a club is the key to success.
Listening to Mancini at the club’s training ground on Saturday, he did not sound like a man under pressure, possibly because of the public support he had received from his employers.
He oozed confidence, knowing the momentum is back with his side after three straight wins as United have dropped points against Wigan and Everton. He cracked the occasional joke, urging United to stay in Cardiff until Tuesday.
But he also spoke of how he wanted this year’s title to be the first of many for City, of wanting to ‘leave a legacy’ and of how he would find it more satisfying — as a former Inter Milan boss — to beat his city rival to the championship.
‘It is better,’ he said before agreeing a Premier League title would be his finest achievement in football.
Top form: Joe Hart will have to keep United at bay
United will have to improve
defensively. Against Everton they were woeful at the back, with
Ferguson no doubt tempted to make changes. Both sides will have their
regrets, having surrendered commanding leads during the season. But both
are capable of scoring on Monday.
Carlos Tevez has formed a potent
partnership with Sergio Aguero these past few games, while Ferguson
agrees Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck have the look of Dwight Yorke and
It is, as Ferguson says, a shoot-out, a
clash between the best away side and the best home side. But it could
yet be determined by whether Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick can match
Yaya Toure and Gareth Barry in midfield, not to mention if Mancini takes
a risk by selecting Mario Balotelli.
Surely he will leave the volatile Italian on the bench. There is far too much at stake on Monday night.