It’s that time again. This weekend, we’ll renew our rivalry with United at Old Trafford. Over the past few years, Manchester Derbies have tended to be rip-roaring affairs. It’s impossible to know which way this one will go, but there’s bound to be passion and controversy somewhere along the way.
That passion has become super charged because of the narrative that is building this season. It’s a story of two Manchester clubs (albeit with one technically just outside the city of Manchester), one that continues to grasp the Premier League crown and one that edges closer to it season upon season. For the neutral, it is fast becoming one of the most compelling club fixtures of the world game, even if Ferguson would have people believe otherwise.
I can’t remember when we last visited Old Trafford as clear league leaders, but I know that this only serves to add further spice to what is an already explosive Derby cauldron. As we were in the Charity Shield, at Old Trafford we will be cast as the new pretenders, arriving at the swamp with our title credentials established. Even though we had kaept pace with United on points for weeks, we were still denied top spot on goal difference because of United’s 8-2 freak hammering of Arsenal. Even when we dealt out a demolition to Spurs, it seemed that we still couldn’t best our rivals. That of course is the superficial view, and ignores the context surrounding both fixtures. But now, with United drawing at Anfield, and City hammering Villa 4-1, we will arrive at Old Trafford as clear league leaders, both on points and on goal difference.
In reality, being ahead by one point and being slightly ahead on goal difference means little at this point in the season. All it means is bragging rights for City fans at OT. As soon as the game kicks off, all of that will disappear.
Football suffers from so much short termism these days. One week, teams, managers and players are the best thing since sliced bread, the next they can be cast as villains, sometimes even outcasts. Various forms of media, including the likes of this blog, are all guilty of fuelling that short termism.
But one argument that does not throw wood on that fire is the view that City are once again a different side to the one that faced United last season. At the risk of falling foul of short termism, a great case in point was this week’s Champions League game against Villareal. I’m sure most fans expected us to coast it, but it didn’t turn out that way. The Spanish side shocked us with an early goal, and then all of a sudden, come the 93rd minute, we were staring at another draw and likely early exit from the competition.
And then up pops Sergio Aguero, in the 94th minute, to give us the three points we so badly needed. It’s becoming a cliché, but City teams of old just would not have done that. It’s down to belief. With belief, you put yourself in the right positions in order to affect a change. You force things, but you do so in an intelligent way. In fact, I thought that Aguero’s strike, and maybe the team’s overall performance, even bore shades of Manchester United.
United have been doing that – forcing the play in intelligent ways – for years. Not playing well, but yet still coming away with the required result. Anyone who has ever won anything will acknowledge that it’s what all the best teams do.
And that why we must not start to believe our own hype at Old Trafford. For we are not the only narrative builders in this league. Ferguson has been building a narrative of his own for decades – its called 19th league titles – and we are the latest threat to that narrative. For years, United wanted to knock Liverpool off their perch. But now, make no mistake about it, they will want to put us right back in our box.
I hear City fans talking up our chances at the swamp, looking at United’s recent performances, and I honestly wonder whether City fans have learnt anything from our battles with United over recent years. It a complete and utter mistake to draw comfort from United’s recent performances. They may well have been performing below par, against the likes of Stoke, Basel, Norwich and Liverpool, but it doesn’t matter. They are still picking up points. They may well have a suspect defence, but somehow United always seem find a way to up their game. And I’m sure they will do so again when we face them this weekend.
It would be great to issue United a resounding defeat. In a sense we’ve a right to hope for that, as we’ll be racking up at the swamp with some heavy artillery in tow. But when was the last time United took a hammering? It doesn’t happen often, and Ferguson is the reason why. When it comes to the crunch, United rarely let their guard down.
We mustn’t let our guard down either. And I don’t know how Mancini will go about that at OT. There’s only two ways I believe he can do it. The first is to approach the game as the City of last season: safety first, keeping things tight and trying to nick a goal. The second is to approach the game as the City of this season: offensive, progressive, playing fluid football, striking quickly, effectively, efficiently.
Go too defensive, and we will keep it tight whilst having the players to hurt United on the counter, but here we will also run the risk of inviting too much pressure, which you don’t do against United.
Go too offensive, and we give United something to think about at the back but leave ourselves open in the process, which given United’s penchant for counter-attacking, could prove disastrous.
I honestly think that Mancini is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Win, and he’ll be lauded as a tactical genius. Lose, and he’ll either be labelled too cautious or too naïve.
The answer, as it often does, probably lies in balancing of City’s split personality. And for once, that should give City fans more cause for hope than they usually have at OT. Because for once, I sense that this match is more about the personality of City than it is of United. More about how the Blue side of Manchester acts and how the Red side reacts, than the other way around.
We’ll see soon enough.