It is not often that an end of season Manchester derby is just as important to City as it is to United but Saturday’s clash could go a long way towards deciding whether the home side can break up England’s big four. As for United, they are of course not out of the Premier League title race but even victory at Eastlands would still leave Chelsea strong favourites for the silverware.
United were in pole position three weeks ago but a home defeat by Chelsea followed by a frustrating scoreless draw at Blackburn Rovers has left them four points behind the Londoners with four games remaining. It is not an insurmountable gap, even with Chelsea’s recent big wins giving them a five goal superior goal difference, but the bigger issue for United could now be holding off Arsenal for second place.
Arsene Wenger’s side are third, two points behind, after their 2-1 defeat at Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday. City are fourth on 62 points, one ahead of Spurs, who next face Chelsea and Manchester United. Liverpool have 56 while Aston Villa are one point behind on 55 after their 2-2 draw with Everton and are also still in the hunt for fourth but it is very much City’s to lose. The Blues desperately need the points to tighten their grip on fourth place that secures a foothold in the Champions League.
Saturday’s game is the fourth Manchester derby of the season and will have to go some to live up to the previous three. United won the Old Trafford league clash 4-3 in September as Craig Bellamy’s brilliant last-minute equaliser was trumped by Michael Owen’s stoppage time winner.
City then won the first leg of their Carling Cup semi final 2-1 with a double from former United forward Carlos Tevez, only for United to snatch a place in the final with Wayne Rooney’s last gasp goal for a 3-1 Old Trafford success in the second leg.
The England striker remains in doubt for Saturday through a twisted ankle that kept him out of the Chelsea and Blackburn games. United fans, unimpressed by the efforts of Dimitar Berbatov in Rooney’s absence, will be desperate to have him back and they found an unlikely ally this week in the form of City manager Roberto Mancini.
“I think it is better if Rooney plays on Saturday,” he told the club’s website. “He is a fantastic player and has had an amazing season. He will be a danger of course but United have many fine players in their team. Having said that we have beaten them once at home already and can do it again. I think it’s best if both teams are full strength and then the side who takes the three points can truly say the best team won and there is no reason that it cannot be us” Defiant words by the Italian but it must be asked whether they are genuine.
City are certainly the form team going into the game, having won three league games in a row and scored 14 goals in the process. “We’ve gelled as a squad at the right time and we’re hitting the right notes just when we need to,” said midfielder Gareth Barry “We’re finishing the season strongly.”
United’s Ryan Giggs is hoping to recover from a hamstring strain in time to play on Saturday maintaining his remarkable record of never missing a derby since he began playing in 1991. The 36-year old has played in all 32 meetings between the sides in all competitions since.
“This game was always going to be huge at this time of the season. They’re going for fourth place and we’re going for the championship. Derby days are always massive anyway, but there’s a bit of extra spice to this one,” Giggs said.
Should United triumph they will hope Chelsea drop points in their awkward looking trip to Tottenham later on Saturday. That would also suit Arsenal who refuse to lie down in the championship race despite taking a couple of standing counts and they would remain very much in the mix with victory at Wigan Athletic on Sunday.
So has time run out for United? Nearly but not quite. If history can repeat itself they can still pinch the title at the death like Leeds United did in 1991-92. The shoe was on the other foot then with United 2 points in front plus a game in hand going into their last four matches. Against all the odds, they managed to lose the next three which allowed an Eric Cantona led Leeds to swoop in and snatch the title..
As the old saying goes, it’s never over until it’s over but if United is to have a chance, they have to get three points from each of their remaining matches…starting with victory in the derby at Eastlands on Saturday.
Can United still win the title if they get all 3 points at Eastlands?