The red mist descends, the blue waves thunder and crash; Manchester is awash with emotion as, once again, the two world heavyweights collide. Indeed, the city will this week play host to two title fights, and the game at Eastlands will provide quite a warm-up to Saturday’s WBA showdown at the M.E.N. Arena.
In a perfect world, the prospect of a UK city hosting an all-English world title fight, and a match seeing the richest club in the world host the biggest club in the world, all in the same week, would be a cause for celebration and national pride; I have my suspicions, however, that deep divides which will once again be evident across the city, and anticipate emotions, retorts and rebukes somewhat sharper than the dull-witted verbal slugs already being traded by Harrison and Haye.
Although it must be said that neither City nor United have looked like genuine contenders to Chelsea’s title as of yet, and both will step into the ring this evening somewhat punch-drunk themselves after decidedly shaky starts to their respective campaigns. City began the season under tremendous pressure, as their unprecedented summer spending really has now left them with nowhere to hide, and a full title challenge plus guaranteed Champions League qualification remains an absolute must. Unfortunately, they have already slumped to three Premiership defeats this season, were knocked out of the Carling Cup and have yet to secure qualification from their relatively easy Europa League Group. Despite convincing victories over Chelsea and Liverpool, the defeat to Arsenal means that if City were to lose tonight, they will have taken only six points out of twelve from their biggest rivals at Eastlands, and will still have to face all four again away from home next year.
However, most worrying for Mancini must be the increasingly evident lack of unity in his squad, almost an inevitability given the huge array of talent which the manager must strive to keep happy. Unfortunately for Mancini, he can only field eleven players per game, and the likely departure of several high-profile players in January is compounded by the fact that his talisman, captain and, in particular, bane of the local rivals, Carlos Tevez, has made no secret of his desire to return to his native Argentina. With all this in mind, it would appear as if City were staring down the barrel of their six defeat to United in their last seven meetings.
However, despite being the only undefeated team in the league, United have no shortage of problems over on their side of the city. They, too, have been rocked by their talisman’s want away revelations, and although the club have successfully tied Rooney down to a new contract, the repercussions will be felt for a long time to come, especially as the club must now make good on their promise to start bringing in big name players, despite lingering debt and dwindling attendances. On the pitch, it has to be said that United just haven’t played very well, and despite a few performances of note against the higher calibre opposition of Spurs and Liverpool, many of Ferguson’s first team have looked either unwilling, or unable, to perform.
Yet Fergie’s biggest problem will be selection, as injury and illness have reputedly left the United manager with no idea of what his starting eleven will be. Now, this may well be a slight exaggeration on his part, and players who were doubts before, such as Nani, may well yet feature. Yet the absence of Rooney, Hargreaves, Giggs, Anderson, Owen and Valencia should be enough to give any City fan hope of facing a severely weakened United side.
So, with all this in mind, what will be the outcome? A Premiership classic which will have companies climbing over each other to have the DVD on the shelves in time for Christmas? No. A fine, flair-filled feast of flowing football? Unlikely. A fiery, fiercely contested encounter? Possibly.
In all likelihood, the game will play out like the equally over-hyped boxing match to be held a few days later: the two heavyweights will be unsure of each other and their own strength, desperate to prove themselves as real title contenders while being equally desperate not to lose, and early exploratory jabs may give way to the occasional flash of intent, before settling down again as both sides dig in for the final whistle. I would have to say City will just edge the contest, thanks to the much depleted United line-up, with Tevez scoring the winner in what is apparently the only game he now wants to play in.
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