Last Sunday’s outcome at The City of Manchester Stadium while significant, can hardly be considered critical. It is much too early in the season for that. It does however add intrigue to a championship race which looks increasingly like it will be fought out between the Manchester clubs.
Many observers though would consider City, and not United, as the stronger of the clubs, so it will be a surprise to some to see the Reds 6 points in front with mid-season approaching.
Recent events however are enough to have Manchester United fans crowing, and with inevitable newfound optimism in tow, the expectancy-level of faithful Reds is heading skywards at a fierce rate of knots.
Man for man, the Blues look to have the stronger squad, while United despite defensive frailty, would appear to have greater togetherness. United are scoring goals for fun, but there are huge question marks over their ability to take control from first whistle, or close a game out efficiently or effectively from a winning position. Their flamboyant style is in contrast to a more conservative style from their neighbours, who look infinitely more solid in defence, although last Sunday’s performance was not a case in point.
Manchester City displayed great character to come back last season after it looked like they’d thrown the title away. They didn’t wear the “favourites” tag terribly well, and really only bounced back when the pressure and expectancy diminished, and after looking like they had blown things, completely. After recovery, again after being installed as favourites, they almost blew it again on the final day!
The Italian currently is under much pressure. The disastrous Champions’ League campaign saw to that, never mind what happened last weekend. The wily, old, Scot feels no pressure in comparison. Unlike Mancini, he is the most influential component at his club, and you’d expect him to win the battle of minds. Ferguson has always bounced back after his sides relinquished titles in the past; to Blackburn, Arsenal and Chelsea, and who would bet against him bettering the man who landed City’s first title in 44 years last season?
One other key factor in United’s favour is the impact and greater goal threat that comes with having Robin van Persie on board. Had City signed the Dutchman in the summer, it would have been a case of everyone switching the lights off and going home; this season’s championship by now may well have turned into a procession, with the Blues leading the way.
Mancini’s close-season shopping has not produced spectacular results, City does not seem to have any new dimension compared to last season, and frankly opponents have figured them out this time around. They hadn’t lost in the Premier League until last Sunday, but they had drawn too many games.
In their favour they have incredible spending power and can attract players that Manchester United simply can’t seriously compete for. Of course it’s not guaranteed a new signing will gel with team-mates, and it could even upset the team dynamic, but the funds available to the City manager is a significant factor in who might win the race. Expect January to be an interesting month.
Perhaps though, the reigning champions’ greatest advantage in the duel for Premier League supremacy is their lack of involvement in European football. They certainly won’t have wished to exit Champions’ League after a paltry campaign, but it does give them a marked advantage over their rivals, who of course remain active on the Euro-stage.
Depending on how long the Red Devils remain engaged by European commitments, their chances of wresting the Premier League title back from City will undoubtedly diminish as Champions’ League interest extends.
This weekend’s fixtures throw up a couple of tricky assignments for the Manchester clubs, although United should prevail over Sunderland.
Manchester City’s trip to the North-east to face a broken Newcastle United outfit, looks less straightforward. Yaya Toure inspired them to what was a crucial but ultimately comfortable win at St James’ Park back in April, but the Geordies, lately heading towards the relegation places, will make things difficult in Saturday’s early kick-off. It could be a tale of strike-partners. Ba and Cisse have found life more difficult second time around in Premier League, but will be hoping City’s visit proves a catalyst to re-ignite a partnership which has clearly been less effective this season than last.
Light Blue fans on the other hand, simply must be wondering why Mancini seems not to prefer starting games with Aguero and Tevez as the double spearhead.
Balotelli from last week’s display will have counted himself out of the equation, so is this when the Argentinian and Brazilian resume their partnership from the off? City undoubtedly looked far better in defeat to United, after Tevez was introduced.
Although December is traditionally a poor month for the Magpies, and City have prevailed in each of the last five meetings between the clubs, deadlock at the end of 90 minutes would not be a surprise.
Sunderland last won at Old Trafford in May ’68, a bitter blow, as victory would have handed United a second successive title, which they ultimately lost to . . . . . Manchester City. In 25 league and cup visits since, the Wearsiders have lost 16 and drawn 9. Games have been very tight between the pair in this fixture over the past 10 years, with late, late, goals depriving Sunderland of victory on two occasions throughout the decade.
It’s hard to see anything other than a home win on Saturday though, which potentially could send United 8 points clear.
Considering European connotations, United may well need to hold such a healthy point advantage after the busy Christmas period, if they are to regain their Premier League crown from a bitter but fresher rival.