By Michael Njoroge (@Mikenjoro)
“This sets up the derby pretty nicely.”
These were the words uttered by Jon Champion as Samir Nasri’s shot hit the back of the Wolves net. The goal put Manchester City two goals up against an all but relegated Wolverhampton Wanderers. In the context of the day however, it ensured that Manchester City would close the gap at the top to three points.
And the derby, is coming.
Sir Alex Ferguson is terming it the most important derby of his Manchester United career. He is wrong. Roberto Mancini is still insisting that the Premiership title race is finished. He is wrong.
Both managers are wrong. And it is in being wrong that both Manchester Clubs find themselves in this situation.
Manchester City had this title wrapped up. They were scoring goals for fun. They were on course to break the record for overall points tally. Then, the wheels fell off. Partly because of not dealing with the over-inflated egos. Carlos Tevez. Mario Balotelli. The team stopped turning up for games with hunger and desire. It was as if the three points were an inherent right. When they realized they had to work, they were already under pressure. They could not cope with the pressure. The Emirates was clear evidence of that.
Manchester United had reacted well to that 6-1 thrashing at Old Trafford. They went back to basics. They re-signed a legend. As City fell off the pace, they picked up theirs. The fighting spirit was back. Slowly, they clawed their way back into contention. Slowly, they got to the top. Slowly, they established a gap. However, they quickly let the advantage go.
Three weeks ago, Manchester City lost to Arsenal. Earlier on, United had won against QPR. United increased the gap to eight points. City were written off. This was Ferguson’s United. And Sir Alex never lets such a lead slip. But just as quickly as United had gained the advantage, they lost it. A loss two days later to Wigan Athletic, and a win by City at West Brom meant that the title race was back on. It did not look like it at the time, but the loss heaped huge pressure on United, something that the loss at Arsenal had removed from City. City were now playing expressively, United were being closely watched at every turn.
So with a week to go to the derby, United drew, and City kept on winning. The gap that was 8 points, had been reduced to 5, and is now 3. If City keep on winning, the gap will be zero. But Sir Alex has said it millions of times in his 25 year career at United. Goal difference is an extra point. At the moment, City have the better goal difference. City have the extra point.
United fans will tell you that in 2008, they lost to Chelsea at this same stage of the run in. They will tell you that last season, they lost to Arsenal a week before meeting Chelsea, with whom they were engaged in the title race. They will tell you that in both cases, they went on to win the Premiership. They will tell you that based on the evidence of that match at the Emirates, City cannot handle the pressure. The pressure that has now been turned on to its full capacity.
What they will not tell you is that in 2008, there was some breathing space. Chelsea won, but had an inferior goal difference. It was United who had the extra point. Last season, Chelsea met United at this stage, but the match was taking place at Old Trafford.
Now, there is simply no breathing space. City have the better goal difference. United go to the Etihad. There is no advantage to United. It is a must win.
But that is where everyone is wrong. A draw, would suffice. It is not a must win for United. A draw keeps the title race in United’s hands. They can thus go to the Etihad and make it a boring affair. Risky, but possible. And that is also where Sir Alex is wrong. If it were the most important derby of his Manchester United career, it would be a must win game. If it were the most important derby of his United career, his job would be on the line. The most important games of his United career have passed. That 1990 FA Cup Final. That League win in 1995/1996 season, when it was won with kids. That 1999 Champions League win. Nothing else matters at United. Win or lose, Sir Alex will be there next season. And the season next. If you think am lying, just ask the Gooners.
For City however, it is a must win. Failure to win puts the pressure back on. The next game after the derby is a trip to the Direct Sports Arena. Newcastle and Papiss Demba Cisse are chasing that final Champions League spot with gusto. It will not be easy. The final game is QPR at home. Easy, but they may or may not still be in the relegation fight by then. The business has to be taken care of at the Etihad. They have to win.
That’s why Mancini is wrong. The title race is not over. It may have been after games against West Brom, and Norwich. But now, it isn’t. In fact, this is the most important derby of Mancin’s City career. If he loses, he may not be at the Etihad come next season. It is also the most important derby of City’s history. Win, and they begin a new era. An era of Manchester City success. Lose, and the feeling will be that they may never get closer.
Mancini was right to downplay the importance of the title race. After the Arsenal loss. After the West Brom win. After the Norwich thrashing. It allowed his players to play without pressure. To subsist with it now, is ridiculous. He has to make his players understand the importance of the game. He has to make his players know that the derby is the one to fight for. That’s why Sir Alex calls it the most important of his career. The players will do it for the boss, because it’s that important to him.
There is something right though in both manager’s approaches. It may not be the most important derby of his career, but it is definitely the most important derby of the season. It will decide the destination of the title. And the title race may not be over, but to think it is and approach the game with no pressure at all gives the players the right mind set. They will be free to do the business on the pitch, without looking over their shoulders. A free Aguero is a beautiful sight to behold. And United know exactly what a free Tevez can do.
Whatever happens, the derby is set up pretty nicely.