Gem in the Prem
So, who will win: City or United? We break down the tale of the tape
The way people have been foaming at the mouth about Monday's Manchester derby, it could be deemed a disappointment unless something truly dramatic happens -- like, say, Mario Balotelli getting four simultaneous red cards, going berserk, severing Jonny Evans' right leg and using it to beat on Howard Webb's bald skull like a bass drum. And we're pitching the likelihood of that happening at around 75 percent.
Let's face it: The odds of this game even living up to the prematch hype, let alone to the surreal Champions League drama of the past week, are about the same as Luka Modric and Gareth Bale wearing Tottenham jerseys next season. This dose of realism doesn't mean that a tactical borefest is in store -- both teams want a decisive win as badly as Pep Guardiola needs a soothing antacid -- but we're not likely to see the equivalent of Brazil versus Italy in the 1982 World Cup, either.
Ever since the 2011-12 fixture list was announced, all roads and punditry have pointed to this fixture at the Etihad. Even after City delivered an October 6-1 mauling of United, the Red Devils' worst Old Traffordian thumping in 56 years, Sir Alex Ferguson's men are too murderously competitive to simply roll over, especially for a club they have held in such disregard for the past 44 years.
By March, the natural Mancunian order had been reasserted, with United atop by as many as eight points and City's championship dreams fading like 'Arry Redknapp's chances of managing England. As City went from swaggering to staggering, Mancini begrudgingly welcomed back Carlos Tevez, the epically selfish but talented striker who had sucker-punched his team's title hopes when he went AWOL for four months. The prodigal Argentine then ignited a resurgence that has seen the blue-nosed stepchildren cut United's lead to three points with three games remaining.
So here we are: 1 versus 2, Red versus Blue, the perennial alpha dogs versus the long-suffering underachievers, good old-fashioned British bulldog spirit versus mouth-watering Johnny Foreigner ball-wizardry.
It's the Gem of the Prem, and since it has all the makings of a heavyweight prize fight, let's go to the tale of the tape.
The Glazers of Manchester United (by way of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) are a known and loathed rapacious pestilence. While their seven-year organized pillage through Old Trafford has yielded plenty of silverware -- four EPL titles and a Champions League win since 2005 -- the latest meticulous financial reporting estimates that Familia Locusta has also siphoned more than $750 million out of the Red Devils in the form of debt, interest on loans, bank charges and personal payments.
At the Etihad, Sheikh Mansour hasn't leveraged anywhere near as much debt because, well, he makes Bill Gates look like a miserable pauper, spending more than a billion pounds since 2008 on transfer fees, player wages and the takeover itself.
Considering that the oil barons could buy out the Glazers with the loose change buried beneath the cushions on their private jet -- not to mention being willing and able to comfortably outbid the Red Devils on any player just for kicks -- it's no contest. Also, only half of Manchester hates Mansour. They all hate the Glazers.
Not that traveling three miles up the road makes this much of an away game for Manchester United, but its away record in 2011-12 is unrivaled: 12 wins, three draws and two defeats and a plus-23 goal difference. That said, City's record at home is Bayern Munich good: 16 wins, one draw and an obscene plus-41 on the goal ledger.
And Etihad Stadium is certainly more suited to this sort of rarefied occasion. With six individually themed suites, including the famed Harvey Nichols Platinum Room, along with 66 hospitality enclaves, City's home is the right kind of posh. It even does weddings, which could come into play should Tevez slot home the winner and Roberto Mancini decide to finally renew his vows with the Argentine after threatening to divorce him only a few months ago.
Advantage: It's tight, but we have to give it to the crudités at the Etihad over the prawn sandwiches at Old Trafford
Stonehenge was the pinnacle of modern architecture the last time City was relevant to a title chase, while Manchester United has more titles than Arsene Wenger has water bottle-throwing hissy fits at the Britannia Stadium. Think about it this way: The last time United won the league, its stars were Wayne Rooney, Nemanja Vidic and Edwin van der Sar. The last time City won it? Fire, sharp sticks and Francis Lee.
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Sir Alex Ferguson is the Jedi master of media and manager manipulation. Just ask Kevin Keegan and Rafa Benitez, both of whom had the temerity to trade barbs with the wily old Scot in previous title run-ins; the resulting Fergie Stress Disorder left both men in psychological tatters. Rafa in particular was so frazzled that he couldn't last a full year at Inter Milan. Yet Sir Alex has considerably more respect for his managerial rival across town, going so far as to call Mancini "a proper football man," which might explain Yoda's recent measured approach. Unable to mask his disappointment at choking away a 4-2 lead with 10 minutes to play at home to Everton, Ferguson conceded that "we've given [City] the initiative," a turn of phrase more poignant than pointed.
More saturnine platitudes followed: "This is the biggest Manchester derby in history," and "if City win I don't see them losing the title." While Fergie connected with some strong jabs by noting that Tevez's recall from golfing exile reeked of "desperation," the Argentine's four goals over the past three games have tempered the sting from Sir Alex's barrage.
Meanwhile, Mancini's early-season hubris has been replaced with some brilliantly stone-faced verbal catenaccio. After losing to Arsenal (the nadir that left many experts vouchsafing the race was done), his tone was one of "we have six games left, so never say never." Then, after thumping an at-the-beach Norwich City side 6-1, the Mancinulum swung effortlessly to "the title race is still over" and "it is impossible for us to win this title" motifs. The is-he-serious kicker? "I think even if we win this game, [United] are favorites." With the media pressure deflected, United's uncharacteristic late-season swoon has left City in a position that only the most over-the-blue-moon fan could have wished for.
Least embarrassing exit from Europe
City mailed in the early games in the Champions League's group of death (finalists Bayern Munich, Napoli, Villarreal) before putting up a fight to Sporting Lisbon in the Europa League. Meanwhile, Fergie's men suffered the worst defeat in Switzerland since the banking industry started throwing names the IRS' way, by falling to plucky FC Basel before being tiki-taka'd into oblivion by Europa League finalists Athletic Bilbao in the Lesser Cup.
For more from David Hirshey, check out his columns on all things soccer.
• The All-EPL Team, 2011-12
• Saying goodbye to Chinaglia
• Time to dethrone King Kenny Dalglish?
• In praise of Fulham
• The comeback artists
• Call it a comeback
• Death by Manchester
• The battle for third
• Spurs' title credentials
• EPL's best starting XI
• City handed first EPL loss
• Chelsea pushed to brink
• Fragile egos crossing
• City and United
• Is Newcastle for real?
• The bad-behavior derby
Manchester United: Justin Timberlake, Usain Bolt, Thom Yorke
Manchester City: Liam and Noel Gallagher, Ricky Hatton, Rick Wakeman
In short, an international all-singing, all-dancing sex symbol; the fastest man on earth; and the frontman of a hipster-worshipped supergroup (Radiohead) on one side; and a couple of Oasis oafs, a gypsy pugilist and an interminable prog-rock pianist on the other.
WAGs on display
Advantage: British tabloids
Ferguson is a noted devotee of minutiae, relentlessly poring over the stats, tapes and scouting reports. He shops for players, not clothing, hence his wardrobe reflects his persona -- gray, wool and grimly functional, capped with school principal black shoes or, on muddy days, a dull pair of Nikes.
For Mancini, you're only as good as you look, which might explain why he's been dressing like a Rat Pack holdover all season long. Armani suits, cashmere scarves, dapper overcoats, all draped just so. His overall thread count is as superior as Manchester City's goal difference.
If, as expected, both sides cram the midfield, these are the two baton-wavers who will be asked to orchestrate the pace of the contest.
Theirs is a matchup of contrasts; Scholes is the elder statesman whose 37-year-old legs have held up to the frenetic pace of the modern EPL quite nicely. If anything, his 225-day retirement galvanized the ginger ninja and helped him analyze enough games from his couch to understand what United was lacking (tempo, vision, composure) and how he could supply it.
Yet squaring off with Toure will be a formidable challenge. If Antonio Valencia is United's key in attack, in many ways the gangly Ivorian is City's heartbeat in the middle. Where teammate David Silva conjures up the silky offensive magic, Toure is all kinetic energy and ball-winning ferocity, much like a modern-day Roy Keane. Scholes and his midfield sidekick, Michael Carrick, will labor to contain Yaya's marauding box-to-box runs.
It's not just moving forward, either, that makes Toure so valuable; when he stays home and screens the back four with his muscular presence, he removes the pocket of space in which Rooney likes to operate. If Toure can keep Rooney from pinging cross-field balls to Valencia or Nani and then racing into the box to get on the end of their lethal crosses, City will have negated United's biggest attacking threat.
Advantage: Ask us after 20 minutes on Monday
The wild cards
United: Antonio Valencia
Forget Nani, Chicharito or Danny Welbeck. The man who can really make United hum is its injury-prone Ecuadorian winger, who was once famously unveiled as the de facto replacement for the incomparable Cristiano Ronaldo. Since coming back from injury in December, Valencia has missed only one minute of available Prem time and has managed a Cantona-worthy 13 assists, more than double anyone in the league over that period.
The key to his dynamism isn't his stellar pace -- although it should be more than enough to get behind the more leaden Clichy or Aleksandar Kolarov -- but rather his direct, uncompromising running. There isn't a defender in the league Valencia won't try to turn inside-out en route to the touchline before delivering a menacing cross (think last season's version of Gareth Bale). Plus, you'll get no nefarious flopping from AV; it's not in his muy macho DNA to go down softly.
City: Who plays up front?
The beauty and challenge built within Mancini's squad is that there's world-class competition at nearly every position. Nowhere is this dilemma more apparent than in the attacking third, as all of City's strikers carry major risk-reward factors.
There's Tevez, fresh from his self-imposed sabbatical and recently displaying all the qualities that made him so unplayable before his Munich meltdown: four goals and two assists in City's past three romps, and a subliminal connection with countryman Sergio Aguero that has restored his club's early-season verve. Aguero, for his part, is aggressive and quick but struggles if he's left to create for himself. Edin "the Bosnian Andy Carroll" Dzeko has tallied 13 goals and three assists in 28 Prem games this season, but any predatory instincts around goal are eclipsed by his lack of assertiveness against robust defending. Then, of course, there's Balotelli, whose entire career is dissonant and abstract: a brilliant, powerful finisher but an idiosyncratic, Dennis Rodman-esque ego that makes him appear as if he's performing in another dimension.
Assuming that Mancini goes for the throat, which tandem does he pick?
Advantage: City, as its problem of abundance is the best kind to have
The shot stops here
Scholes may have come out of retirement with Sir Alex's coaxing, but the EPL's most consistent keeper did not, as van der Sar remains happily put out to pasture. His replacement, the paillard-thin David de Gea, has found his feet after some severe early-season problems with his hands. The de Gaffes are one of the reasons City even has a chance Monday, but are offset by the fact he lost his most commanding aerial defender when Vidic went down with a knee injury.
Mancini gets to roll out Joe Hart, England's No. 1 by acclamation, in response -- for in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. After all, Hart's closest competition is Clint Dempsey's favorite keeper, Robert "Nutmeg" Green.
Hart has more clean sheets (15 to 11) and does better under the high ball (36 crosses caught and only three missed compared to de Gea's 24-4 ratio), but United's Spanish shot-stopper is in slightly better form, probably because he's had more work to do. Though his defense did him no favors in last weekend's 4-4 draw with Everton, any consistent United watcher will readily concede that de Gea has vastly improved in recent weeks. In a game likely to be tight, is anyone convinced Hart is unbeatable? After all, it only takes one botched save. Right, Rob?
Advantage: Too close to call
As delicately poised as this one is, United is going to pay the piper for its failure to deliver the hammer blow in the past two weeks. And when Tevez scores the winner against the club for which he played 99 games before Fergie pushed him to the door marked "Adios," there won't be enough claret in the cellar or racehorses in the barn to console Sir Alex's bruised and battered ego.
Score: City 2, United 1