How did it come to this? Barely three weeks ago Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City side was “cracking up” and Manchester United had opened up an eight point Premier League lead. United’s superb form in 2012 had brought 12 wins and a draw since defeat to Newcastle United at St. James’, and the title was the Reds’ in all but name.
Yet football, at least the format practiced by Sir Alex Ferguson’s men, is rarely that simple. Defeat to Wigan Athletic at the DW Stadium and a draw with Everton at home, together with City’s improved form, means that Monday’s clash between the two Manchester clubs at Eastlands is now pivotal to this season’s title. Ferguson, ever mindful of the key moments in any campaign, believes the victor will go on to take this year’s honours. Who could disagree?
United, three points to the good in the title race, can afford to draw of course, enabling the Reds to claim a 20th domestic title with four points from games against Swansea City and Sunderland over the next fortnight. Yet, with recent form as it is, there is little presumption to be made about United’s ability to achieve even that goal.
So to the “shootout” with City, as Ferguson put, where both Blues and Reds know that a win is likely to bring with it the main prize. Mancini’s men must win, but if they do so then matches against a recently humbled Newcastle and relegation-threatened Queens Park Rangers should hold little fear. Three points for United and City can kiss all hope goodbye.
Indeed, says Ferguson, whatever happens in Monday’s fixture, Reds must now get used to City challenging United’s hegemony at every turn. It is a fixture that will come to match United’s enmity with Liverpool, concludes the Scot.
“We have to get used to playing City in important games, they are not going away,” admitted the 70-year-old United manager.
“The financial support they have means we will be playing them, in a lot of big games. Cup finals maybe, semi-finals â€“ we have already done that last season and had an important cup tie this season.
“It’s there, if we are going to be contesting for league titles regularly, and we will be doing, it will become just as important as the Liverpool game. Maybe not in terms of the emotional part because the Liverpool-United games are emotional, but certainly in importance â€“ probably at this moment in time it supersedes the Liverpool games in the sense that they are our direct opponents now.
“Manchester City are without question up against us to win titles and that is what I focus on, I only focus on the team that can actually affect our progress in terms of winning.”
Ferguson’s men must quickly overcome disappointment against Everton last weekend if the team is to get a result at Eastlands. There can certainly be no repeat of the slapdash defending that saw United concede four against the Toffees, with Ferguson’s side making errors in the build up to each of the visitors’ goals.
Whether it was nerves or arrogance, United’s ability to casually throw away a winning position against Everton could yet see the title slip away. But this is not a position Ferguson is prepared to countenance in the build-up to Monday’s clash, with the Scot preferring to laugh off United’s slip as ‘doing it the hard way’. It is a clichÃ©, of course, but better than admitting the side is one calamitous reverse from a trophyless season.
“I am a confirmed masochist, I joined about 26 years ago,” joked Ferguson.
“I do not know if you thrive on it, I can’t even say I can look forward to it, but I am up for it, I am prepared for it and I think my players will be prepared for it so hopefully we will be OK.
“I suppose when the fixtures came out at the beginning of the season all roads pointed to this game. It was inevitable maybe. But we are where we are and it doesn’t matter what has happened before â€“ the buildup to the game, who has dropped points and who hasn’t dropped points, it really is all down to this game. It will be a fantastic atmosphere and I hope it lives up to the billing.
“We are also smarting from throwing that game away last week, but in the context of our history we almost expected it, we make it hard for ourselves, our poor supporters have been subjected to that drama for years and years. God knows what they are like just now but hopefully we will make amends on Monday. It’s not a cup final, there are three games still, it is an important game. I think it could decide the title.”
However, United could be without two key players for the tie, with both defender Jonny Evans and winger Nani struggling for fitness. Evans trained on Friday as Ferguson took his players to Wales for a short break, but the Northern Irishman’s sore ankle has been a concern all week. Meanwhile, Nani is also suffering from an ankle problem, and Ferguson will leave a fitness assessment until the last moment.
United’s manager is unlikely to make significant changes despite the second-half horror show against Everton. Ferguson may bring Chris Smalling in at right-back, with Rafael as culpable as any for United’s poor defensive display against Everton. The Brazilian has performed admirably during the run-in, but Smalling’s defensive nous may win the 21-year-old a place.
There are unlikely to be many further changes, although Ferguson must decide whether to deploy both top goalscorer Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck, or leave the Scouser to plough a lone furrow up-front.
Meanwhile, across town Mancini has spent the week playing down his side’s chances despite an uptick in recent form. United’s experience, says the Italian, is likely to win the day. Little more than mind games 101, cynics might add. Moreover, Mancini will be able to field a full strength side at Eastlands, including fit again Mario Balotelli and former Red Carlos Tevez.
Given the Blues have scored 10 in the past three fixtures, form is certainly on the Italian’s side.
“He probably wants to take pressure off his own players, that’s possible but it will not affect our approach or attitude, we know exactly the situation we are in here,” adds Ferguson.
“We are in a better position than Manchester City. We can get two results they can only get one, they have to win we can draw, we can win. But my attitude and the club’s attitude will be trying to win.”
Amen to that, Reds will concur, although Ferguson’s side is likely to adopt the ‘European approach’ at Eastlands, with five strung across midfield, and the visitors prepared to wait patiently for a chance. United supporters making the short trip across town will forgive any negative approach, if that is to be it, in exchange for three points and a 20th domestic league title.
Manchester City versus Manchester United, Premier League, Eastlands, 30 April 2012, 8pm.
City (4-4-2): Hart; Richards, Kompany, Lescott, Clichy; Silva, TourÃ© Y, Barry, Nasri; Tevez, Aguero. Subs from: Pantilimon, Taylor, Zabaleta, Kolarov, Savic, K TourÃ©, De Jong, Milner, Pizarro, Johnson, Balotelli, Dzeko.
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Smalling, Evans, Ferdinand, Evra; Carrick, Scholes; Valencia, Rooney, Young; Welbeck. Subs from: Amos, Jones, Fabio, Rafael, Jones, Young, Cleverley, Giggs, Nani, HernÃ¡ndez, Berbatov, Owen.
- Nani was given the nod over Ashley Young in last weekend’s 4-4 draw, and made the most of his opportunity with a goal and an assist against the Merseysiders;
- The Portuguese winger has scored eight goals in 27 Premier League appearances this season, and has struck 51 per cent of his shots on target this season;
- Wayne Rooney scored twice last weekend and has now overtaken George Best as United’s fourth highest goalscorer. Rooney remains a goal behind Robin van Persie as this seasonâ€™s top goal scorer;
- United had conceded just once in seven league fixtures until the calamity against Everton last weekend. David De Gea was an ever-present during that run, making 32 saves at an average of 3.5 per game.Â The most saves the United ‘keeper has made in any single game was 13 against Liverpool in October 2011;
- Sergio Aguero slotted home Cityâ€™s first last weekend – his 22nd of the season, putting the Argentinian third behind Rooney and van Persie in the leading goalscorers chart this season;
- David Silva picked up another assist last weekend and remains at the top of the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index for assists this season. Silva has also been one of City’s hardest workers this season, covering 190.2 miles to date;
- Joe Hart pulled off two key saves to prevent Wolverhampton wanderers getting back into last weekend’s clash at Molineux. Hart is now ranked 15th in the Index, and is the leading ‘keeper;
- Unitedâ€™s captain Patrice Evra is the highest ranking player in the Index to have not scored this season.
- Rooney tops the rankings, scoring 30.9 percent of the Reds goals this season.
Referee: Andre Marriner (Birmingham)
Assistants: A Watts, M McDonough
Fourth Official: M Jones