IT WAS SUPPOSED to be all over but slip-ups for Manchester United at Wigan and at home to Everton mean the title race is still humming.
United travel to Eastlands this evening to face their cross-city rivals, unsafe in the knowledge that a loss will virtually cough up the league.
City will be delighted that they will not have to form a guard of honour for an all-conquering United but capturing a first league title in 44 years is reason enough for the stadium to bristle in anticipation.
There are not many out there predicting a United win and the consensus for fence sitters would be a closely-fought draw.
Below are six factors that will be crucial in a, hyperbole aside, HUGE MATCH.
David de Gea: The young Spaniard has gone from villain to hero and back again multiple times on his debut season. A stunning save in the closing stages of the Chelsea away game has boosted his confidence and he has been solid ever since. 7/10
A league win would see questions over David de Gea’s position dissipate. (Credit: Mike Egerton/EMPICS Sport)
Joe Hart: One can only imagine the gutter language that would spill forth if Wayne Rooney faced Hart for a penalty tonight. The City ‘keeper has been the best in England for the past four years but it took some coaches longer to catch on than others. 8/10
United: Alex Ferguson was loving Johnny Evans’ ever-maturing displays in defence so much that he called him the best defender in the country. Then Everton happened and four goals were leaked.
Rio Ferdinand has done admirably without the superior Nemanja Vidic by his side but Patrice Evra is slowly on the wane. Rafael combines excellently with Antonio Valencia on the right wing but is prone to drift off at the worse possible moments (see Stephen Pienaar’s goal last Sunday and Iker Muiain’s Europa League goal at Old Trafford). 7/10
City: Roberto Mancini’s side began the season by rollicking in an unseemly amount of goals. Lost amid the flood of praise was the fact that the defence had remained miserly.
Mancini has settled on a core of Joleon Lescott, Gael Clichy and Vincent Kompany – with Kolo Toure, Pablo Zabaleta, Micah Richards and Aleksandar Kolarov fulfilling cameo roles to round out the back four.
Their league form has been fantastic but they were exposed in Europe and run ragged in the first-half of their F.A Cup exit to United in January. Their 3-3 draw at home to Sunderland last month seems to have been an aberration though and only one goal has been conceded in four matches since. 8/10
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United: It is a stone cold fact that United have not lost a league game that Paul Scholes has started since his return. The impressive run, which has included a few draws, began with the FA Cup win at Eastlands.
Michael Carrick is also enjoying his longest run in the team and Valencia has been the team’s best player since returning to the fold.
The problem area is the left wing with Ashley Young fading out of games, Nani only getting back to match fitness and Ryan Giggs converted to a central midfielder. 8/10
City: The African Cup of Nations has caused many a Premier League manager’s table to be thumped over the years. Roberto Mancini’s desk must have been close to buckling in January and February as he was deprived the services of Yaya Toure. The Ivorian picked up where he left off after returning from international duty. He is the solid core of the City midfield.
Gareth Barry is happy to carry the water and shoot inaccurately from distance. The advantage here was United’s until David Silva remembered he was world class again. Also, Samir Nasri has recalled why he left Arsenal – to win trophies. 8/10
United: Wayne Rooney has not looked as clinical as he did in the winter months of the league but continues to make goal-scoring contributions. Danny Welbeck can appear harmless and heavy-footed for long stretches before linking up fantastically with the midfielders and smashing home long-range strikes. Javier Hernandez is the go-to option on the bench but Ferguson will go with the strikers that tore the City defence asunder back in January. 8/10
Segrio Aguero and David Silva have returned to form at the perfect time. (Credit: Stephen Pond/EMPICS Sport)
City: Six goals that silenced 95% of Old Trafford proves that City know how to tear into teams too. While Edin Dzeko has lost the trust of his coach, Sergio Aguero has revelled in the return of Argentinean team-mate Carlos Tevez. With Silva and Nasri cutting in from the wings and Clichy a danger when he crosses the halfway, City have threats all over.
City have scored three goals or more 17 times this season. Their attacking thrust is not bound to any one style and the United defence would be advised not to stand off Aguero or Tevez within a 40-yard sweep of their goal. Mario Balotelli can stay in the stands for this one. 9/10
United: Ferguson has conceded that the game will decide the destiny of the Premier League trophy. He was livid after the 4-4 draw against Everton but the fact that United need a result in this fixture will have given focus to preparations this week. He was exposed by City’s exuberance in October but countered it with an attacking set-up of his own in the FA Cup win. Expect him to drive home the cup-final-like importance of this match. 8/10
Alex Ferguson has found a challenging foe in Roberto Mancini. (Credit: Martin Rickett/PA Archive/Press Association Images)
City: Mancini has overseen a City team that took collective breaths away for seven months before one win in five games tipped the balance in United’s favour. The Italian has evolved the side’s game to include a multi-faceted attack. Yaya Toure and Gareth Barry provide the defensive screen to four players that attack with abandon and link up very well.
Defence has not been forgotten and Kompany and Lescott have re-payed the faith of their boss. He was in charge of a 6-1 win over United at Old Trafford yet questions remain. It has not been easy but Mancini has enjoyed the underdog role of the past three weeks. Can he now inspire his team to take the most important step in more than five decades? 8/10
That thing you do
Call it the ‘X’ factor, chutzpah or call it that extra special something that turns great players into champions. Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes must bathe in the stuff while City’s Yaya and Tevez have swirled in its scent.
United would usually get top marks but they fell short twice against Barcelona in recent years and have stuttered in the past two weeks. The blues have memories of last year’s FA Cup win to fall back on but little else. United 9/10. City 7/10.