The title is now a two-horse race and both are from Manchester
23:19 GMT, 8 December 2012
My gut feeling assessing the Manchester derby on Sunday is to say that this is just another three points in a long season.
I want to argue that, in my years of
fighting for titles and having watched several races unfold, Sunday's
result will not have a pivotal influence on the eventual outcome.
I would add that it is far too early to judge and that there are too many twists and turns to come.
Golden touch: City forward David Silva
celebrates scoring in the 6-1 derby win
at Old Trafford last season
Either of these sides are capable of
putting a 10- or 15- game unbeaten run together. And either team could
be struck down with injuries.
There is so much more to be played out. Remember, it was just over a year
ago, in October 2011, that Manchester City beat Manchester United 6-1 at
Old Trafford and the headlines the day after were 'Power Shift' and
'This Will Herald A New Era'.
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But seven weeks later, when City lost at Chelsea, another headline read: 'Title Race Blown Wide Open'. Normally I would use those examples to demonstrate how quickly our perceptions of the title race can change.
But then my mind goes back to that
dramatic last day of the season, to Sergio Aguero's injury-time goal, to
the United players looking bemused and downcast at the Stadium of Light
and to City's ecstatically celebrating the title – on goal difference.
I said in April last year, before that climax to the season, that it would be Sir Alex Ferguson's worst nightmare to lose a title race on goal difference and that he had always emphasised to us the importance of winning a game 3-0 or 4-0 once we were in control, precisely because of that possibility. And I remember Sir Alex congratulating City immediately after they had won the title, but then saying: 'This will never happen again.'
On Sunday, those United players that were at the Stadium of Light, who experienced the bitterness of losing the title, will be reminded of that: it can never happen again. Because although we can overstate the importance of individual games, when it came down to it, the goal difference City accrued in October last year at Old Trafford proved crucial.
And those United players will receive another reminder from Sir Alex that, were they to lose at the Etihad Stadium, they would again be knocked off the top spot by City – on goal difference. And that's why this game has become the most important fixture in English football.
Low point: United manager Sir Alex Ferguson leaves the pitch after losing 6-1 against City
I've seen both United and City nine times this season and there is nothing to choose between them.
The title race is between these two. I don't see any other team with the mental strength, durability and character that these clubs possess. They haven't been at their best yet and if there's one thing I would want to see on Sunday it's a step up in quality so that it is a magnificent game that befits the Premier League's strongest clubs, with exciting attacking cancelled out by concentrated defending.
But make no mistake, these are the best teams in England right now.
United have been better in attack, they have had more creative play and are more unpredictable.
But City have been more resolute defensively, grinding out results without the flair of United but with more stability. So Roberto Mancini will want to see that spark again to ignite his team. He would want to see Edin Dzeko, David Silva, Sergio Aguero and Samir Nasir firing again.
And Sir Alex, with most of his defenders fit, would want to start keeping clean sheets, to see his side become difficult to beat and pick up 1-0 wins rather than the 4-3 victories.
No love lost: Ferguson clashes with City manager Roberto Mancini (right)
But do I think that if United win, City will have suffered a crucial blow in retaining their title No.
And if City win, does that mean they will go on and win the League No.
The reason why it's impossible to call between these two is because of that mentality they now show.
Last season, City made good the mental deficit they had always had when competing against United, that feeling that they would always fail at the last. The 6-1 win at Old Trafford, the crucial 1-0 win at the Etihad in April which put them back on top of the table and finally winning the League has given them a psychological strength that only a title win can provide.
Now both sides have a level of mental strength unmatched by the teams around them. You can see it in the early-season form. Whether it be in United's ability to
come from behind or City's knack of winning when not at their best, they
have demonstrated courage to stay in games and ability to grind out
Who will have the edge: Ferguson (right) does not need to remind his players they lost the title on goal difference
Even when City have suffered disappointments in the Champions League, they have been able to bounce back in the Premier League. So when they lost in the final minutes at Real Madrid, they were able to draw against Arsenal that Sunday. When they went down 3-1 at Ajax, they beat Swansea the following Saturday.
Both of these sides are capable of withstanding a setback on Sunday and coming back to win the title. But at the same time, the race is likely to be so close that this result could be significant.
Anyone who says they know who will win this is guessing. And if anyone tells you they know who will be champions after Sunday, you can ignore them.
All that we can say for sure is that last season showed these Manchester derby games have the potential to be decisive – even if it's impossible to say exactly how at this point.
Give him a hand: UEFA president Michel Platini has a plan
Plantini's big idea has potential
UEFA president Michel Platini has suggested that the Euro 2020 Championship will be in a multitude of countries rather than in one or two host nations.
I think we need to hear the details before we form a fixed view as to whether it can be a success or not.
Because if it's a tournament that takes place in six different cities within an hour's flight of one another, then it could be incredibly successful.
Imagine London, Cardiff, Amsterdam, Paris, Brussels and Dortmund being the host cities.
That would be easier to manage for all fans and for teams than the tournaments we've been at recently in South Africa or the Ukraine and Poland and certainly more condensed than the Brazil 2014 World Cup.
But if, for political reasons, Platini ends up giving games to Istanbul, Moscow, London, Reykjavik, Lisbon and Rome, you are talking about a fad.
All of those cities would be perfectly good hosts on their own.
But the geographical spread would make it a nightmare for players and fans.
I know what I expect to happen. But let's hope that UEFA can salvage a good idea out of this.