This weekend’s 158th Manchester derby isn’t the most important fixture between the city’s preeminent football clubs, despite the inevitable hype. Far from it. But the match will go a long way towards deciding the fates of both United and City, with 13 Premier League matches remaining this season.
While defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers last Saturday reduced the Reds’ lead in the title race to just four points – five over City – United remains in pole position to take a 19th domestic league title come May. For City the match could effectively end Roberto Mancini’s hopes of title glory this season.
United’s 2-1 loss at Molineux has reinvigorate the challenge from Arsenal, Chelsea and City after Sir Alex Ferguson’s outfit reeled off a 29 match unbeaten run in the Premier League, 24 of them this season. The sequence of results, despite criticism over United’s performances, particularly evident away from home, meant that Ferguson’s side had threatened to run away with the title race.
Not so and a second defeat in a row could mean just a one point lead for United after the weekend’s fixtures. By a quirk of the fixture calendar Arsenal faces Wolves on Saturday, while Chelsea visits Fulham – both eminently winnable fixtures. It’s a challenge that United’s Scottish midfielder Darren Fletcher believes United will rise to, with the Reds arguably facing the toughest fixture list of any leading club.
“You have got to earn the title,” said the 26-year-old midfielder.
“Nobody gives you the trophy. The team that wins the league will be the team that deserved it and showed the best form throughout the season. That is always said and hopefully we can prove our title credentials in the next few months.
“The big games can ultimately win you trophies. We’ve got to go to Liverpool and Arsenal, still play Chelsea twice and we have Manchester City this weekend. But we enjoy big games. This club is all about performing and rising to challenges.”
Three of those fixtures are away from Old Trafford where United’s form has yielded just three wins on the road in the Premier League – at Stoke City, West Bromwich Albion and Blackpool. Indeed, United’s points tally away from Old Trafford is better only than Liverpool of the current top six.
But Fletcher says that there is no complacency in the United camp despite the healthy league lead. If anything the sobering loss to Wolves and the accompanying performance – as insipid a United display as anything witnessed by supporters in the past five years – will have refocused the players’ minds.
“We know they lie ahead of us. We’re not naïvely thinking that the league is over,” added the Scot who is certain to start at Old Trafford on Saturday lunchtime.
“I am not saying we are going to win the treble, but we are still in all competitions and looking well. We are in a good position in the league but by no means are we taking that for granted.
“We are looking to kick on and keep winning these matches. The Premier League has shown that it is getting even more competitive. There have been so many shock results this season. We have to be wary of that and make sure we go into every game in top form.”
Meanwhile, Mancini’s Blues continue to perform sporadically. Victory over West Brom at the weekend followed a disappointing draw with Birmingham City and the recent loss to Aston Villa.
Criticism of the Italian’s tactics has been rife too and not without justification. Mancini’s tendency to deploy three holding midfielders in a five man midfield has led to accusations of a defensive-minded approach. Indeed, City’s ultra-negative outlook at Eastlands earlier this season produced a lifeless goalless draw in the 157th derby.
However, the recent £27 million acquisition Edin Džeko could start at Old Trafford along with Carlos Tevez and the returning Ballotelli. Throw Adam Johnson, David Silva and James Milner into the mix and City can boast a potent attacking force – if Mancini chooses to use them of course.
Saturday’s game is also conveniently close to the 35th anniversary of City’s last trophy, earned with a 2-1 victory over Newcastle United to win the League Cup on 28 February 1976. And much as Mancini promised to “tear that banner down” it will inevitably tick over in the coming weeks.
Saturday’s match, should it end in defeat for City, will surely end the Blues remaining hopes of title glory. With City out of the Carling Cup, facing a replay with Notts County in the FA Cup and up to 10 more matches in the Europa League, there is the distinct possibility the banner will tick over to 36 years before the Blue half of Manchester can claim another trophy.
In tandem with the club’s heavy spending, the conspicuous lack of silverware means the pressure is firmly on Mancini to deliver at least fourth place in the Premier League by May. A negative result could put even that scenario in doubt, with Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea each holding a game in hand and Liverpool resurgent under Kenny Dalglish.
Ferguson’s outfit will remain top whatever the result on Saturday. Victory, however, will go a long way towards securing that coveted 19th title in addition to those all important local bragging rights.