The stakes have never been so high for a Manchester derby.
Sure, Manchester United were once relegated after losing 1-0 at home to City, but results elsewhere on that day in May 1974 meant the Red Devils would have gone down even without a back-heeled goal from former United striker Denis Law.
This time around, the northwest neighbors’ business is being conducted at the right end of the table.
United were in control of their own destiny until Sunday’s 4-4 draw against Everton tipped the balance toward City, who can now win a first championship since 1968 if they win their three remaining games.
“We’ve given City the initiative; there’s no question about that,” United manager Alex Ferguson said. “It makes the game at the Etihad Stadium a really important game now. It makes it the title decider, really.”
There is still almost an entire round of Premier League action remaining before the northwest neighbors go head-to-head at City’s Etihad Stadium, but the game is already dominating the sports pages in the British press.
Even with two more matches for each team after next week, the encounter is more important than any of the 44 Manchester derbies Ferguson has previously been involved in.
“Definitely,” Ferguson said.
United looked to have a record 20th title in the bag after overhauling City, but they have dropped five of the last nine available points and the momentum now seems to be with City, who have already mauled United 6-1 at Old Trafford this season for the worst defeat of Ferguson’s 26 years in charge.
Everton’s four goals mean United have conceded more goals at home than in any league season since 1978-1979, leaving Ferguson to emphasize spirit rather than statistics.
“We make it hard for ourselves, but we have to go there knowing we’re capable of getting a result,” Ferguson said. “We need to get a result now at the Etihad, there’s no question about that. There’s no reason why we can’t do that.”
The one thing in United’s favor is the experience of the title winners in their ranks.
“It’s a huge game,” Nani said. “It will be a difficult game, but if you want to win the league you cannot think about the atmosphere or the opponents, we must just think about the way we play and try to win the game. We have to keep believing in our qualities because we still have a great opportunity to win the title.”
Ferguson has been trying to suggest the pressure is on City because of their players’ relative inexperience and City manager Roberto Mancini has seemed ready to embrace that diminished status, despite his team’s greater financial muscle and depth of squad.
Mancini pointed out that there are still two more games for each side after the derby to clinch or throw away the title.
Defending champions United host Swansea City and finish at Sunderland, while City are at fourth-placed Newcastle United, before hosting Queens Park Rangers on the final day of the season.
“We have another chance, but they have a bigger chance than us at this moment,” Mancini said. “After the derby, the games United have left are not as difficult as the ones we have to play.”