What a difference a year makes. Last April, with Manchester United leading the Premier League by four points after the 30th game, the title looked if not sealed then at least heading towards Old Trafford. Yet, by the month’s end Manchester City had beaten a limp United at the City of Manchester stadium and Sir Alex Ferguson’s goose was well and truly cooked. The rest needs no further repeat.
The story is different now of course, with Ferguson’s side leading the Premier League by 15 points and coasting towards a 20th domestic league title. No last-minute Sergio Agüero winner can save City now, with only local reputation and Roberto Mancini’s job left to play for. Mancini’s side is playing to become “Champions of Manchester,” as Vincent Kompany put it this week. Massive.
In reality, each side now has just the single trophy to play for. United, the Premier League. City, the FA Cup, with Mancini’s men facing Chelsea at Wembley next weekend. It leaves the derby unusually flaccid; a result either way will make little difference to the season’s out come.
Still, while United has crashed out of two cup competitions in recent weeks, with defeats against Real Madrid and Chelsea curtailing any thoughts of another treble, Ferguson says the campaign has been successful.
“I was asked about only winning one trophy,” said Ferguson.
“I think that’s a strange question in the context of the kind of competition we have as we’re up against teams from London – Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea – plus Liverpool and Everton. They’re massive challenges every year. For every one of those teams, the supporters want to win one trophy. I think we can win the one that really does matter to the fans.
“Yes, I’d love to win the Champions League again but I’d say that we were knocked out in circumstances everyone is still talking about. The disappointment at being knocked out by Chelsea is obvious but the league form has been fantastically consistent.”
That consistency has seen United gain four additional points after 30 games compared to last season. Mancini’s side, meanwhile, is nine points and 20 goals down.
Any campaign that ends with the Premier League title is success of course. Although behind the headlines United’s season is a little more muted despite the huge points advantage. Ferguson’s side is likely to finish the campaign having scored fewer goals and conceded more than last season.
It will take a huge effort from here to match Chelsea’s 2005 record points tally of 95, although beating last season’s total of 89 should be within sights if Ferguson’s side extracts itself from its current short-term funk.
On the pitch the 71-year-old manager must do without captain Nemanja Vidić for City’s visit, although elsewhere the Scot boasts an almost fully-fit squad. Wayne Rooney will return alongside Robin van Persie in attack, while Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans will play in the back-four, with Rafael da Silva also returning after injury.
“Vida got injured at Sunderland,” confirmed Sir Alex.
“Early on, he had a clash and had a bit of treatment and then he had a clash with David De Gea near the end of the game. It’s not serious, just a nerve in his calf, so he should be maybe back in training over the weekend. I’ve got Rio Ferdinand, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones so I’ve got the right cover, I think.”
Meanwhile, City arrive without Jack Rodwell who is injured, although the former Evertonian has appeared in just four Premier League matches all season in any case. Micah Richards and Maicon are definitely out, although David Silva and Samir Nasri should both overcome minor knocks.
Still, it is not form or players that has won United the league, says Mancini, but a mysterious fear spread throughout England. Conversely, City has been hit by fierce domestic competition. Mancini has long since given up on credibility.
“No one plays well against United because they only play with fear,” said Mancini.
“United are strong now because of their importance as a team, their importance as a club. Every team that plays against United plays very soft because they think the game is difficult, that they can’t beat them.
“If they play strong against United, they can beat them like they can beat us. This is normal, this is football, because United have been a strong team for a long time. For the other teams they play against it is difficult. I’m not saying they don’t play 100% but their mentality is poor in that game.”
Ferguson can challenge Mancini’s remarks as the sour grapes of a man now fighting for his job after one of the weakest title defences in recent memory.
Indeed, the Scot has warned City that his side intends to build on the coming success. Whether that ambition is matched in the transfer market is another matter. Not least with strong rumours circulating that Ferguson’s summer budget could be severely curtailed after pressing home Robin van Persie’s acquisition last July.
“The record over the last 20 years tells you we’re not going away,” adds Ferguson.
“So I’d expect us without doubt to have a real good challenge next year. Plus we’ll have players who are maturing nicely. Rafa has proved how much he’s developed this season; the goalkeeper David de Gea’s progress right through the season is absolutely superb and he’ll get better next year. Kagawa will be a far better player next year, I’m certain about that.
“We have to deal with the fact that one or two players are getting older, but I think we’re not so bad in terms of protecting most positions. So we’re not going to go away, no doubt about that.”
Neither will City, of course, with Mancini, or whomever replaces the Italian, likely to be handed a substantial transfer bounty. The club’s failure to land van Persie or a number of other targets last summer is to blame for the club’s failure, claims the Italian.
There’s some truth in that. But more in Ferguson’s assertion that United’s has been a strong response to last season’s narrow failure.
“The way we lost it resonates with a lot of people in the club,” said United manager. “The players focused, their team spirit was terrific and there was a definite purpose in terms of getting the title back.”
Manchester United v Manchester City – Premier League, Old Trafford – 7 April 2013 March 2013, 8pm
United (4-2-3-1): de Gea; Rafael, Evans, Ferdinand, Evra; Cleverley, Carrick; Valencia, Rooney, Kagawa; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Büttner, Jones, Smalling, Powell, Young, Scholes, Valencia, Anderson, Giggs, Nani, Hernández, Welbeck
City (4-4-2): Hart; Zabaleta, Kompany, Nastasic, Clichy; Barry, Touré, Milner, Silva; Tevez, Agüero. Subs from: Pantilimon, Lescott, Nasri, Kolarov, Razak, García, Guidetti, Džeko
Referee: Mike Dean
Assistant Referees: S Child and J Brooks
Fourth Official: H Webb
Head to Head
Last 10: United 6, City 3, Draw 1
Overall: United 69, City 45, Draw 50
- Joe Hart has made 85 saves this season, with 13 clean sheets, and conceded 26 goals at an average of 3.26 saves per goal;
- David de Gea last conceded in the Premier League against Southampton on January 30th, keeping six clean sheets in a row in the league, which is two-thirds of his total for the season;
- De Gea has only conceded three goals in the Premier League 2013, compared to 17 through the end of December – he averages 4.65 saves per goal conceded;
- Rio Ferdinand has contributed more defensively than any other player for either City or United, with 137 defensive contributions, including 64 interceptions;
- Pablo Zabaleta is just one tackle, interception, block or clearance away from matching Rio, having notched up 136 defensive contributions this season, including 64 tackles, 59.8 per cent of those attempted
- Vincent Kompany has made 126 defensive contributions this season, including 28 clearances and 54 interceptions;
- In midfield Carrick is ranked sixth in the EA Sports Premier League Performance Index for passes completed in the opposition half at 889 exactly 150 behind Yaya Touré;
- Carrick has also played 201 more minutes that Touré this season, while David Silva also ranks above Carrick in number of passes completed with 970, having played around 400 minutes less than the United man;
- Robin van Persie’s shot against Sunderland may have gone down as a Titus Bramble own goal but he remains the second top goalscorer in the Premier League;
- The Dutchman is one of only four players in the Index to have taken 100 efforts at goal this season, unleashing 103 shots with 60.1 per cent on target;
- Strike partner Wayne Rooney has hit 12 goals this season – the same tally as City’s top goalscorer Edin Dzeko;
- Rooney has played 1691 minutes and attempted 68 shots, while Dzeko has played 1556 minutes and taken 62 shots;
- City’s goal threat comes from three players – Dzeko, Aguero and Tevez, with the Argentinian achieving 65 per cent shot accuracy rate.