6 May ~ If Manchester City win the Premier League, they will deserve it. They are the only team in the league with an unbeaten home record; they have scored more goals than their competitors; some of their football has been breathtaking; and, more than anything, they have bullied their nearest rivals. In a season of strange results and amplified scorelines, one game stands out beyond all others. In late October, City became the first club to put six league goals past United at Old Trafford since Huddersfield and Newcastle scored 13 between them in a crazy week back in 1930.
Alex Ferguson described the derby as his "worst ever day". When asked to recall his best ever day with United, Ferguson goes misty-eyed over May 26, 1999, when he won his first European Cup. Four days after "that night in Barcelona", City played Gillingham at Wembley in a play-off to decide which club would be promoted from the third tier.
Back in those days, a sizeable portion of the United support wanted City back within touching distance. It was funny to see them play local derbies with Macclesfield and Oldham in the Second Division, but it would be more amusing to have them back up the leagues, where they could be ridiculed at close quarters.
The reason for City's turnaround is obvious, but the brutality of their win at Old Trafford remains remarkable. "It was horrible," Ferguson told the BBC – another recent development – after the match. "It's the worst result in my history. The impact will come from the embarrassment of the defeat."
This season can boast many memorable moments – City and Arsenal losing at Swansea, Arsenal conceding eight at Old Trafford and then putting five past Spurs and Chelsea, the goals from Peter Crouch, Luis Suárez, and Papiss Cissé – but should City hold onto their lead and win the league, none will be as iconic as the derby at Old Trafford. Those six goals provided City with their lead that now separates the teams at the top of the table. It also rocked Ferguson and influenced his approach to the derby on Monday night.
Prior to the match at the Etihad, which Ferguson dubbed "the derby of all derbies", he talked the game up: "Going into work next Tuesday morning will be the most important day of their lives for both sets of supporters. People have been brought up through their grandfathers, great-grandfathers, grandmothers to be what they are. You can't change a family's traits. That's what supporters are. It's steeped in the blood of these supporters. I know lots of our supporters who would give everything to win this game on Monday."
He was not wrong. After losing so heavily at Old Trafford, United fans wanted nothing more than to go to the Etihad and win the title; to make the City fans turn their backs, but not for a ripped-off goal celebration. Had United won the match, the league would have been as good as over. City's win at Old Trafford would only have served to build up their expectations so they could come tumbling down from even higher in their own stadium.
But instead of looking to win the game and the league, Ferguson set his team out to avoid defeat. Before the match, the United manager declared that he had never played for a draw in his life. Ferguson's bravado will have come as news to anyone who has seen his team play away in Europe, and it did not fool Roberto Mancini.
After the game Mancini called Ferguson out on his tactics: "Any manager can choose his team but for them it was important to play for a draw. A draw would have finished the league. We played better and deserved to win. They played with all their players behind the ball." It is no surprise that Mancini recognised the behaviour of a manager defending his lead. On Monday night he made three defensive substitutions after his team scored, replacing Carlos Tevez, David Silva and Samir Nasri with Nigel de Jong, Micah Richards and James Milner.
Mancini was right about Ferguson's approach. In playing a defensive game, United became unbalanced and ill-prepared to cope with falling behind. In a game that could have won the title, they didn't muster as much as a shot on target. Ferguson's defensive line-up included his supposed big-game player, Park Ji-Sung, who was presumably picked to clutter the midfield and stop City from playing. But his presence only succeeding in breaking up United's normally expansive game.
Park has been a loyal servant and is liked among supporters for his doggedness, but United have lost nine of the last 11 games he has started. As pointed out by Rob Smyth in this now tragicomic article, Antonio Valencia has performed as well as anyone in the second half of the season. He could have taken the game to City, but was left the bench.
When United lose games, there is a tendency for their fans to bring out the calculators and work out just how much money the Glazers have cost the club. They can make a compelling case: in the past few years the City owners have invested £1 billion in their club, while the United owners have taken £500 million away from a club that would otherwise be the world's most profitable.
But in the same way that City failed to win the league last year because they sat too deep and drew too many games, United's challenge faltered this season when they were not bold enough at the Etihad. If City win their last two games, they will deserve their title and United will have no one to blame but themselves. Paul Campbell