LONDON: Manchester’s “mother of all derbies” tonight cannot be decisive, mathematically, in the Premier League title race. But that does not lessen its outstanding status in the history of the city’s football.
As it stands champions Manchester United lead ‘noisy neighbours’ City by three points with three games to play. City have the better goal difference, +60 to +54, and they have home advantage – not that this mattered much last October when City won 6-1, sensationally, at Old Trafford.
That was the day when United understood that their pre-eminence in English football was under serious threat.
City are the form team with three successive wins behind them and a collection of 49 points from a possible 51 at home; United have won only one of their last three games.
But City have a more testing run-in with an awkward visit to Newcastle – notwithstanding the Magpies’ slump on Saturday – and a home tie against a QPR team who may still be fighting for their Premier lives. United will be home to Swansea and away to Sunderland, both clubs with ‘only’ pride and position bonuses to play for.
United manager Sir Alex Ferguson knows all about the stresses and strains of title deciders but trophy-winning experience is not everything as the fall of Pep Guardiola has shown. Thus managerial rival Roberto Mancini will use his pre-match team talk to tempt his players with their chance of a singular piece of football history.
He said: “We have only one chance because United lost points against Everton last week but overall they have more chance than us. We’re playing Newcastle. This is very, very difficult. Then we’re playing against QPR, and QPR will probably need to win their game. I think even if we win this game, they are still favourites.”
Mancini may gamble on the dangerously unpredictable Mario Balotelli in the final fortnight of the season, saying he “trusted” the controversial striker to behave should he be called on against United. But he is likely to be on the subs’ bench, with United ‘old boy’ Carlos Tevez and Sergio Agüero starting in attack.
United hope central defender Jonny Evans will be fit despite a bruised foot but may be without Nani, who damaged an ankle on Friday in training.
United, while focusing on tonight, have maintained an eye on next season, too.
Ferguson took his players to Wales to prepare for the City game and took that opportunity to watch Swansea’s draw with Wolves; he is interested in Hoffenheim loanee Gylfi Sigurdsson. The Icelander would cost around £10m, more than Swansea can afford. United have also been linked with Borussia Dortmund’s Shinji Kagawa.
Coming back to more immediate matters Ferguson has conceded that if City win tonight he would expect them to go on and win the league title for the first time in 34 years.
“But,” he added, “if we win then we’ll be strong favourites. A draw and we’d be favourites too. We’d have to be happy with that, but we won’t be talking about going there not to lose. We always play to win.”
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