Manchester derby -- the table has turned
No matter what corner of the soccer galaxy you hail from, Old Trafford has been as inhospitable a landing zone as you can find in all of Sepp Blatter's universe.
Think of all the bizarre alien life forms that have descended on the hallowed ground, from the latest Arsenal incarnation that was tipped by some deluded experts (OK, me) to challenge for the title but instead allowed eight lucky goals to slip by them, to all those aggrieved clubs over the years that thought they were about to snatch a point, only to see United score a winner after 115 minutes of what is, in any other stadium in the world, a 90-minute game.
On Planet Ferguson, time and space seem to be utterly warped, like Carlos Tevez's understanding of the phrase "team ethic." And even though the actual distance from Eastlands to the Theatre of Dreams is a mere five miles, spiritually speaking, they're light-years apart. No team has arguably suffered more blunt force trauma at the feet, head (and sometimes hands) of United than has Manchester City. And with that kind of physical and psychic punishment, a team can develop a deep, festering inferiority complex that takes 20 years -- City last topped United in the final league table in 1991 -- and roughly $725 million of transfer market retail therapy to make go away.
But here's the good news for all of us neutrals -- and I include myself in that group if, by neutrals, we're talking about people who would love to see both teams lose simultaneously -- this Manchester derby to end all Manchester derbies has the potential to be what the Brits sometimes refer to in between sips of tea and taking out super-injunctions as "a cracker."
And not just because these two sides have been carving up the Prem this season (13 wins and three draws combined) and battled to just one derby draw in their past 10 league meetings; there's also no trace of those desperate, boot-trembling jitters in the Sky Blues as they prepare to swagger into OT on Sunday and take the next nouveau-riche step in their Sheikh Mansour-funded plan to conquer the soccer cosmos.
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Or to put it another way, for the first time in recent memory, Roberto Mancini's men find themselves every inch the equal of their imperious neighbors -- and both teams with Manchester in their names know it.
I mean, has anyone else noticed how quiet -- well, less derisive -- Sir Alex Ferguson has been lately when talking about City? Remember how ahead of a 2009 derby, the snobby Scot branded City as "a small club with a small mentality" after a sky blue billboard appeared in the center of downtown sporting a life-size cutout of Tevez and the words "Welcome to Manchester" emblazoned on it. Of course, Fergie doesn't have to worry about kooky Carlito anymore -- CT, phone home! CT, phone home! -- but judging from his anodyne, Roy Hodgson-esque comments about the derby this week, Sir Alex is well aware that the Mancunian rivalry finally has its bite back.
You see, the beauty of the Manchester derby is different from that of the fear and loathing on Merseyside or the territorial pissing matches of North London in that Mansour's petrodollars not only replenished City's talent pool but revived the very pulse of the rivalry itself. Before 2008's Abu Dhabi cash injection, soccer supremacy in England's third-largest city had all the balance of Lenny Dykstra's checkbook: City reigned in the 1960s and early '70s; both sides floundered in the '80s; and then United took over with the birth of the EPL, never to look back. During the SAF dynasty years, he would be the first to tell you that City was never the most important match on the schedule, obsessed as he was with sticking one to the Kop End or his modern-day bete noire, Arsene Wenger, or the eye-poker extraordinaire, Jose Mourinho.
All Sir Alex has to do is look at the current table with City hovering above United to realize he can no longer act as if Manchester is a one world-class-team town. The equation has changed from business as usual to a challenging new maxim: Win the city, win the league.
And City, to its credit, has seized this subtle power shift and obliterated all comers (except, as Sir Alex is quick to point out, none of the league's powerhouses, and yes, I know City played Spurs) en route to a league-best 27 goals in eight games. Plus, Mancini's players are coming off a dramatic, confidence-boosting 94th minute winner against Villarreal courtesy of The Good Argie, Sergio Aguero. It was City's first Champions League win, and despite the minor concern of Adam Johnson's fragile psyche being bruised after having been yanked off before halftime, all the karma of Greater Manchester appears to be on their side.
Perhaps that explains the sheepish manner in which Ferguson handled trips to Anfield and Bucharest this past week. For two successive games, it was difficult to pick the United team out of a police lineup, so unrecognizable and mind-numbingly cautious were Ferguson's tactics. Against Liverpool, with which Man U drew 1-1, Wayne Rooney, Nani and Chicharito were relegated to subs duty so Ferguson could park his Darren Fletcher-driven bus plus a defender (Phil "Beckenbauer with Frosted Tips" Jones) in midfield while stranding striker Danny Welbeck 30 yards upfield. Meanwhile, if it hadn't been for Rooney's marksmanship from the penalty spot against Otelul Galati in Europe, you'd have a hard time telling the difference between the EPL champions and Champions League finalists Red Devils and the Romanian upstarts they labored to overcome.
You could argue that the looming specter of facing a dynamic and multithreat City has forced Ferguson into thinking more conservatively than he has since the lockdown days of Gary Pallister, Steve Bruce and Denis Irwin. After all, Rio Ferdinand has looked increasingly creaky of late while Nemanja Vidic celebrated just his second appearance for United all season -- a calf injury on opening day became a two-month layoff -- by getting sent off against the Romanians on Tuesday night. United's physical presence and wealth of experience still make it a defensive force to be reckoned with, but it may need to set up a passport control zone in its area to keep David Silva, Aguero, Mario Balotelli and Edin Dzeko from wreaking havoc.
For all its slick, attacking soccer, though, City is prone to defensive and goalkeeping lapses as we saw against Villarreal, when it gift-wrapped Cani's goal inside of four minutes. Against United, Joe Hart would be well-advised to parry incoming shots a bit wider rather than into the center of the goalmouth, where they are easy prey for Chicharito and Rooney.
Of course, there is always the risk that the King of Caution, Roberto Mancini, will revert to his 17 holding midfielders lineup from last season and attempt to out-Catenaccio United into submission.
But should the Italian take off the hand brake and City's attacking alien hordes manage to beat their smug neighbors, don't be surprised if the combination of boisterous Blues and riotous Reds turn Old Trafford into an exploding Death Star.
For that reason -- and because I'm a man of peace -- I'm hoping this crosstown conflagration ends 2-2.
David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."