United, City derby has big implications

Sir Alex Ferguson has been in this position before: three points in front of Manchester City ahead of a Manchester derby. It brings to mind the Premier League title decider from late April.

Back then Ferguson admitted: "You would have to be a confirmed masochist to enjoy it." He was right. The encounter certainly was a painful one as City won 1-0 and did the double over United for the first time in four years.

It would prove decisive, as City moved level on points and would win their first league championship for 44 years on a dramatic final day of the season — and on goal difference too — something that hadn’t happened in England since 1989.

United were left to rue not scoring enough throughout the campaign. Just as meaningful, however, were their derby defeats to City. "I think we saw last season it was important," said midfielder Darren Fletcher at the weekend.

"We lost twice [to City] and we lost the league. The derbies were a major factor in that. So we don’t want to give them any advantage by them winning against us, and I think it’s about time we got a result against them."

Although the season has yet to reach the halfway mark, it’s not too early for this game to have a bearing on the title chances of either Manchester club; not least because it’s tight at the top of the Premier League. So tight in fact that this derby could also be considered the most significant, certainly among Europe’s top five leagues this season.

Stop to think about that for a moment.

In Spain, Real Madrid are 11 points behind Barcelona even after beating neighbors Atletico 2-0 at the weekend. Of course things might be closer when El Clasico comes back around in March, but in the meantime Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova is facing questions about whether he should "give [Real Madrid] up for dead."

In Italy, Juventus lost the Derby d’Italia and their unbeaten record in Serie A to Inter. They also went down to Milan. Neither of their traditional rivals, however, look like realistic candidates to take the Scudetto away from Turin. Instead, it’s like the 1980s all over again, with Napoli making the most convincing challenge.

In Germany, it was Der Clasico at the weekend, but by playing out a 1-1 draw with Borussia Dortmund, the Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich protected the 11-point advantage they have over the current holders and should lift the Salad Bowl for the first time since 2010.

That leaves France, where there are of course two derbies among a tightly packed top four. One is regional between first placed Lyon and third placed Saint Etienne. The other, known as Le Classique, is between Paris Saint-Germain and Marseille.

Taken in isolation, all have their own merits; their identity and idiosyncrasies; culture and character; politics and personality. But as a rivalry within the context of a title race in the here and now, it can be argued that the Manchester derby is perhaps the preeminent one or at least the most compelling among them all for this season.

Because unlike this time last year when Tottenham were still daring to dream of challenging City and United, this is a genuine two-horse race with a six-point gap already open between second place and those bunched together in third, fourth and fifth. On the pitch, this title race promises to be contested by City and United — and no one else.

Sunday’s derby will be telling. For United, it’s an opportunity to get revenge for last season, particularly the 6-1 at Old Trafford and head into the busy Christmas period with a six-point lead emboldened by the kind of self-belief that comes from hushing their "noisy neighbors." For City, it’s a chance to further consolidate the idea that they’re now the dominant force in Manchester by extending their unbeaten run in the Premier League and pushing on to retain their title.

It’s not as though both are without their flaws. Neither team have been totally convincing this season and yet still find themselves out in front of the chasing pack. United have had to come back from behind after conceding the first goal 10 times this term. City have seen their character questioned after their elimination from the group stages of the Champions League for the second consecutive year and have yet to reach the heights of performance they showed last season.

Hopefully both will rise to the occasion this Sunday. The Manchester derby has hardly disappointed in recent years. With the exception of 1968, when City beat United to the old First Division title by two points and then in 1974 when the Blues ensured the Reds were relegated, it has mattered like never before, certainly in its potential to decide the most watched league in the world and by the same token in its global reach.

It threatens to get even bigger too. The groundwork for the Manchester derby to at least better rival El Clasico as a spectacle is perhaps in the process of being laid. City have appointed Ferran Soriano as CEO and Txiki Begiristain as director of sport. Both are formerly of Barcelona and the club is well-positioned if they wish to attract Pep Guardiola in the future.

A succession plan is also in place at Old Trafford should Ferguson step down. United’s vice-chairman Ed Woodward revealed a list of names of possible candidates to replace him is "in the drawer and long may it stay in the drawer." How long it will, however, is unknown. Speculation that Guardiola is first on the piece of paper has grown amid unconfirmed reports that Ferguson and United’s chief executive David Gill had dinner with him in New York.

Moreover, despite City’s new Barcelona-like structure and the reservations held by United about whether he matches their philosophy, Jose Mourinho is also quite understandably a frontrunner for either post should a vacancy appear at the Etihad and Old Trafford. He replaced Mancini at Inter and won what the current City manager couldn’t, namely the Champions League. When asked if Mourinho might replace him once he retires, Ferguson said, "he can manage anywhere, absolutely."

It all adds another dimension to the Manchester derby. It’s derby future is subject to intrigue but it’s present is no less fascinating. Sunday’s derby at the Etihad will be the most important game of the season so far.