As title run-ins go, this season’s edition is one for the memory. The blue and red halves of Manchester have been embroiled in a pitched battle for Premier League glory.
The intensity and animosity between the two has always lingered but ever since Carlos Tevez traded Old Trafford for the Etihad and that billboard in Manchester – the importance of retaining Manchester’s bragging rights has increased dramatically.
Last season we got a glimpse of the Mancini blueprint, but all in all it wasn’t his club and to take away third place was an achievement in its own right. All the while, their rivals were picking up a 19th league title.
The maturing of Mario Balotelli and Edin Dzeko and the new signings of Samir Nasri and Sergio Aguero placed City in the title hunt this time around. Alternatively, Ferguson had a mix of youth and experience, as David de Gea, Phil Jones and Ashley Young were brought in combined with the evergreen Ryan Giggs and fresh out of retirement Paul Scholes.
At a glance, you would say that United have got through the hardest of their matches with arguably their toughest test coming on April 30, which will be known as D-Day in the Premier League and most notably in Manchester. This season nothing is predictable in the Manchester derby, this was proven no more in October when City dared to dream at Old Trafford and demolished their rivals 6-1. However, United pipped City to the post in the FA Cup third round tie at the Etihad, storming into a 3-0 lead before eventually winning 3-2, the same result as the Community Shield where United’s comeback killed off City in August.
Since the beginning of the 2008/09 season the two have tangled a total of 12 times, with United coming up trumps on nine occasions, including a League Cup semi-final win and two 1-0 wins at the Etihad. A moment of genius similar to a Paul Scholes header at the Etihad would be enough for Ferguson and his red army this season, whilst Mancini is looking for a spark of magic from any one of his flock of forwards. It just depends who he chooses from Mario Balotelli, Aguero, Dzeko and, oh yeah, that other Argentine in Manchester – Tevez.
Tevez returned as a substitute to a mixed reception at the Etihad and created City’s winner, with a swift reverse pass which had City fans backtracking in their criticism. Despite losing a reported £9 million from his five-month hiatus in Buenos Aries, Tevez could regain some of the passion and trust in his manager, which was briefly seen in Mancini’s fist pumping celebrations when Nasri netted the winner against Chelsea on Wednesday night.
Tevez can be a game changer. Just like Paul Scholes who turned the tables, shoring up the United midfield – Tevez can produce the hunger, desire and most importantly the goals to win the league for City, who have become the outsiders since their loss at Swansea.
The Britannia Stadium, City’s port of call this weekend, is always a tough venture, whilst United’s home tie against Fulham coupled with a visit to Ewood Park in early April, could see them stretch their lead. Martin O’Neill has brought a sparkle to the north-east in a wonderful season up north for football but you can’t see them picking up points at the Etihad where City have a 100% home record.
April for United must feel like a dream for the players and manager. After returning from Blackburn, Ferguson’s men face two more of the bottom five in QPR and Wigan Athletic. The beauty of this run-in is that City play almost every single of their matches first and the two obviously alternate between home and away ties, with United playing the one more home game over City – a possible crucial point which the red half of Manchester will look to capitalise on.
Both Aston Villa and Everton, who both always struggle in Manchester, will travel to Old Trafford in preparation for a possible title decider at the Etihad. Meanwhile in the blue half, a stern test for Mancini will come at the in-form Arsenal. On a six-match winning run, Wenger will look to fuel the United title train by aiding many-time tital rival Sir Alex Ferguson at the Emirates Stadium.
West Brom should be three points chalked up at the Etihad, whilst a trip to Carrow Road will not be easy for Mancini – although it looks as though Paul Lambert’s Canaries won’t be pushing for any glory and will probably step aside for the title chasers. As United proved on Sunday, Wolves are in horrific form and a trip to Molineux doesn’t seem as daunting as it did under Mick McCarthy of last season.
As I forecast both teams to be coming into some form right in time for the Manchester derby, a draw looks most likely. But you simply cannot predict a Manchester derby any longer.
Without the distractions of cup or European football City are pitted against Newcastle, a match which has become tougher and tougher but despite their form this season, I can’t see Pardew taking points off City. Meanwhile in Manchester, United face Swansea – possibly a tricky tie for the travelling Welsh club. If United are still needing points going into the final match at Sunderland, they won’t be in for an easy ride, whilst Mark Hughes travels to his old club at the Etihad possibly in need of a win to stay in the league but should be blown away by a title sniffing City side.
When you look at the run-in it looks like the title could swing either away with tricky away ties seemingly proving crucial. From Newcastle to Sunderland and Blackburn to Arsenal, there are potentially point-dropping contests and you can only look to April 30th as the Premier League title remains delicately poised.
Man United Prediction: WWWWWWDWW – 25 points from 27: Total 95 points (1st place]
Man City Prediction: WWDWWWDWW – 23 points from 27: Total 92 points (2nd place)