Sir Alex Ferguson lit the fuse on a potentially explosive showdown with Manchester City as the Manchester United manager claimed a victory at the Etihad Stadium would be one of his club’s greatest ever results.
For the first time in 44 years, City go into the Manchester derby as reigning English champions, but the bragging rights from pipping United to the title on the final day of last season will count for nothing if Ferguson’s side inflict a first league defeat of the season on Roberto Mancini’s men tomorrow.
United are three points clear of second-placed City at the top of the Premier League and the prospect of allowing their bitter rivals to extend that lead is certain to provoke a ferocious response from the hosts after their exit from the UEFA Champions League in midweek.
With United showing alarming defensive frailties in recent weeks, encapsulated by a chaotic 4-3 win at Reading last week, Ferguson knows it will not be easy to subdue City, especially as the Blues have a formidable record on their home turf.
City have not lost a league game at home since Everton won in December 2010 and they can also take confidence from a pair of league victories over their bitter rivals last season.
In the circumstances, Ferguson believes a derby victory would rank as one of the all-time great United triumphs.
“If we win [tomorrow], it will be one of our best ever results. They are a really good, powerful team with massive players,” Ferguson said. “It won’t be easy and if we defend like we did at Reading we’ll be in trouble. The important thing for us is to take lessons from the mistakes we’re making and do something about it. We need to find a solution.”
Mancini faced renewed questions about his future after City’s latest European flop and a defeat to United would only add to the pressure on the Italian.
Reports of Pep Guardiola or Jose Mourinho replacing him at the end of the season will make unpleasant reading and, while Mancini is convinced he will be given time to get his spluttering team back on track, even he admits his players need to raise their game.
“It’s clear the season isn’t finished. We have the Premier League and FA Cup to go for, but we must work more now. What we’re doing is not enough,” Mancini said. “I don’t feel any pressure. I’m disappointed because we went out of the Champions League, and I’m disappointed for the club because they deserve to go through and for our players, who deserve to play on that stage.”
The theme of managers under pressure runs through the rest of the weekend’s program at both ends of the table.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has been under fire of late and another negative result against West Bromwich Albion today would trigger more bile from the growing number of critics among the club’s previously loyal fans.
The Gunners are on a miserable run of two wins from their past nine matches in all competitions and Spanish midfielder Mikel Arteta is well aware that a victory over West Brom is essential to ease the sense of crisis enveloping the club.
“We want the fans to stay behind us, but the fans need us to be on top of our form to get that excitement,” he said. “We have to give them something now and they will respond, because they love Arsenal as much as we do.”
At the Stadium of Light today, both Chelsea interim manager Rafael Benitez and Sunderland manager Martin O’Neill are in desperate need of a morale-boosting victory.
Benitez has yet to win a league match since replacing Roberto di Matteo, while O’Neill has presided over a woeful run of two wins from the Black Cats’ past 22 league games.
Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert, whose lowly side host Stoke City, and Nigel Adkins, whose Southampton team take on fellow strugglers Reading, could also do with a win and three points to keep the critics at bay.