After title-chasing Manchester City lost 1-0 to Arsenal on April 8, the Barclays Premier League title race looked as good as over as Manchester United stood eight points clear at the top with six games to go.
But a fortnight later, United’s slip-up against Everton (a 4-4 draw on April 22) and a three-game win streak by Man City has cut the deficit down to just three points, and with the much-anticipated Manchester Derby at the Etihad Stadium set for Monday afternoon, the timing couldn’t be better.
Without a doubt, this is the most important match of the season. Both teams will still be confident in their title chances, as either can end up at the summit of the table after the match with just two games remaining. A win for City would move the squad past United on goal difference, but if United wins, it would all but mathematically see the team crowned as Champions for the 20th time in its history and would end City’s challenge for the season.
But beating City at the Etihad is much easier said than done. City’s home record for the season is nothing short of impeccable — undefeated in the league with 16 wins and a solitary draw.
United probably won’t complain should the match end all square, as it would still maintain its three-point lead over City. On the other hand, Man City needs to win this game to have a realistic shot at the Premiership title.
The onus is therefore on City to take the game to their rivals right from the whistle. This could very well turn out to be a battle of tactics between two of the best managers in the business — City’s Roberto Mancini and United’s Sir Alex Ferguson.
Attacking will certainly be the name of the game for City, and Mancini has to look no further than the Argentinian duo — Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez — to deliver the goods. The two have been essential in the recent turnaround of City’s fortunes, leading the front line with a combined nine goals over the last three games. Since returning to the club from Argentina, Tevez has looked fit, focused and back to his best. His deadly partnership with Aguero could give the United defenders plenty of food for thought throughout the game.
From the United perspective, it is important to hit City on the counter attack with the pace of the likes of Nani, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young. David De Gea and the back four have to remain focused every minute of the match, and the front men and the wingers also have to help out defensively and take their chances clinically when they attack.
But the main man essential to United’s game plan has to be Paul Scholes. He is the one in the middle of the park that can switch from defense to attack in the blink of an eye, which might just make the difference. With loads of experience and composure, Scholes could be a calming influence for the whole team in such a high-pressure game. Sir Alex Ferguson has to start him.
In this fierce rivalry stretching back to 1894, United has the edge in the head-to-heads against City with 67 wins compared to City’s 44, with the remaining 50 games ending in a draw. Even in the Premier League Era, United still holds a superior advantage in the series with 17 wins, 6 draws and only 6 defeats. However, this current Manchester City side is enriched with talent, loads of class, plenty of match-winning potential and bags of money. With a 6-1 humiliation of United at Old Trafford back in October, City hinted to the soccer world that the power shift from the red side of Manchester to the sky blue side is well and truly underway. Since then, United has responded as true champions and is now on the brink of yet another title. And at this point, Manchester City is the only team that can stop them.
Manchester City vs. Manchester United — 3 p.m. on Monday, April 30 on ESPN2. It is unmissable.