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Can City reclaim edge over United?
United is 12 points clear at the top of the table and, if it takes 19 points from its remaining eight games, they will break the Premier League point record set by Chelsea in 2004-05. The best City can do on Monday is delay that victory procession, make it as difficult as possible for United to achieve that record and, after a 3-2 defeat in the derby at Etihad Stadium earlier in the season, gain some measure of local pride.
It may not have quite the title-defining significance of last season’s meeting, when City won 1-0 at the end of April to set up its late surge for the crown.
Yet City captain Vincent Kompany – the goalscorer that day – remains adamant that the game is still of great significance. “A derby is a derby. I don't think we could care less about the league in that game,” Kompany said. “It is about who is going to be champions of Manchester - that is all it is. Last year had so much more to it. It was a derby and a big comeback from all of us.”
There is also, although nobody at City will mention it, the chance to convince itself that this has been in some senses a freakish season: that this year’s United side is not as good as the bare statistics make it appear. For the truth is that United looks vulnerable. That has been the mystifying aspect of this season – particularly early in the season when even Sir Alex Ferguson described its defending as a “cartoon cavalcade” – a reference to Sunday afternoon children’s television in Scotland in the early sixties.
After 19 games, at the halfway point of the season, United had conceded 28 goals; it has let in just three in the 11 league games since. The preposterous series of comeback victories that characterized the early part of the season are no more. United has begun grinding out wins; it has kept six clean sheets in a row. Not as vulnerable as it once was, some sense of stability has been restored, to a large degree because Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand have begun playing relatively regularly again after injury.
But Easter Monday’s FA Cup quarterfinal defeat to Chelsea highlighted – once again – a weakness in the middle of midfield. United can pass the ball – and many would argue that this season has been Michael Carrick’s best at the club – but even with Phil Jones alongside him, United’s midfield can be outfought. When City beat United last April, that was the shocking aspect: that it effectively bullied United through the center, Gareth Barry and Yaya Toure, with Carlos Tevez dropping back to help, savaging the stately thirtysomething’s of Carrick, Paul Scholes and Park Ji-Sung. United hasn’t tackled that issue – indeed Ferguson has suggested he doesn’t see it as an issue.
Yet in the league game at City in December and in the league game at Chelsea in October suggest otherwise. United fielded the same side in each and won both 3-2, in each case having taken a 2-0 lead and been pegged back to 2-2. In both, the game plan was essentially to sit deep, absorb pressure and strike quickly down the flanks.
It was, in a sense, a gamble, Ferguson trusting his side’s attacking strength to make more of the chances his side created than the opposition’s forwards. On both cases it came off, although Chelsea will point to a couple of poor refereeing decisions that went in United’s favor and City to Samir Nasri’s craven shying away from a Robin van Persie free kick in the wall.
But the two recent FA Cup quarterfinal ties between United and Chelsea have shown what a gamble the strategy is. At Old Trafford, United again went 2-0 up early, and again Chelsea came back, but this time there was no late United winner. In the replay, when United badly missed Wayne Rooney’s ball-winning from a deep-lying forward position, it had three fine chances, but a brilliant save from Petr Cech and two misses from an off-color van Persie meant United was unable to respond to Demba Ba’s strike.
The manner of the defeat as much as the result itself must gnaw at United and it is that doubt City can work on. The league this season is gone, but if it can dominate in midfield – and if Rooney fails to recover from a groin injury its chances of doing so are enhanced – then it can create the impression, whether justified or not, that United’s margin of victory this season, the ceremonial nature of the run-in, is somehow misleading, can gain some sort of psychological edge before next season.
“It is a completely different situation, today and last year," said Kompany. "For me it is a one-off game and everything that has happened in the past has no importance whatsoever next Monday. It is about coming out on top in that game. I am looking forward to it and I think everyone else at Manchester City is too."
It’s not much, but it’s all City has left.
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