For Manchester City, the worry is that recent history might be repeating itself. Under Roberto Mancini, the club won its first title of the Premier League era in 2011-12, but failed to retain the honor. Now, having become champions again under Manuel Pellegrini, an expensive collection of lauded players are clearly troubling their coach with below-par displays. It’s no way to go into a derby. No time to have the "difficult moment" to which Pellegrini referred after the midweek exit from the Capital One League Cup at home to a diluted, youth-sprinkled but admirably spirited Newcastle United.
Roles have suddenly reversed in Manchester. Robin van Persie’s stoppage-time equalizer against Chelsea at Old Trafford has made Manchester United the noisy neighbors as they prepare for the short trip to City’s Etihad Stadium (live, Sunday, 8:30 a.m. ET). Can one goal have truly launched the red revival? Maybe not, but it had that feel. It seemed to signal that, after the months of frustration as David Moyes struggled with the burden of taking over from Sir Alex Ferguson, United had drawn from Louis van Gaal their old swagger, their old relentlessness, as emphasized by the denial of the Premier League leaders in the 94th minute.
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It’s a habit of van Persie’s and City will need no reminding of it. In 2012-13, they were defending their title convincingly. Mancini’s men had not lost in 15 matches until United came to the Etihad and van Persie scored a stoppage-time winner, his free kick taking a deflection off Samir Nasri in the defensive wall and curving out of Joe Hart’s reach. City were never quite the same again that season and, although they reversed the outcome in the Old Trafford derby – it was 2-3 on both grounds that season – United took the title by a comfortable margin.
This time, City haven’t even started the season especially well. They have been patchy, at times looking complacent. An example of this came in Moscow, where they dropped Champions League points to CSKA after taking a two-goal lead. They had an air of over-confidence that night and maybe it came from having swept Tottenham Hotspur aside a few days earlier, when Sergio Aguero struck four times.
Proof that they cannot afford to take any game lightly came at West Ham last weekend, a second defeat in nine Premier League games raising a big question mark over their hopes of seriously challenging unbeaten Chelsea for the title. The next day, Chelsea might have gone eight points ahead of City – Pellegrini admitted van Persie’s goal, cutting Chelsea’s advantage to six, gave him a rare smile – and now we can’t see anyone getting near Jose Mourinho’s team. So City need to come out with a statement of defiance.
Man City need to deliver one of the stunning performances that marked each of their successful title campaigns. In 2011-12, City struck six times on two occasions – one at Old Trafford – and two years later proved even more capable of hitting the heights, with a seven, two sixes and two fives. But their majesty was largely based on four top players – Aguero, Yaya Toure, David Silva and captain Vincent Kompany. Silva is out for up to four weeks and Toure sustained an injury in the same match against Newcastle, so only two of those players are in contention.
However, Toure has been a worry all season. Sometimes as brilliant as ever in midfield, he has occasionaly looked his age – 31. Indeed it must be an underlying concern for City fans that his decline will symbolize that of the team as England’s major force over the past few years. So the stakes are high this weekend. A United win will inevitably be seen as evidence that the balance of power in Manchester is shifting once again, that the van Gaal effect is growing while the Pellegrini factor wanes – and it can only be bad news for the dignified Chilean. There will inevitably be speculation that he is about to go the way of Mancini. Yes, it’s tough at the top.
"We must improve in general, not just talking about the defending," Pellegrini told reporters earlier this week. "We must create more chances, we must score more goals. We are working on that and I am absolutely sure we will return to be the same team we were in the most important part of last season. But the only way is to compare last season with this season. And I don’t think we are any worse this season."
There is, of course, another scenario: City stands up and punishes a suspect defense. Pellegrini’s team did it to Arsenal, among others, at the Etihad last season and United are certainly vulnerable at the back, for all the fine work done by a potent attack in relieving the Chelsea pressure that might otherwise have proved inexorable.
The derby could tell us a lot. Sticking to natural convection, it cannot tell us who win finish top of the Premier League. Like many, it might seem like a one-horse race – but it could give an indication of who Chelsea’s biggest rivals will be next season.