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Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Do Believe The Hype

Times in Manchester, they are a-changing. Sir Alex Ferguson has never before had to entertain the fact that his neighbours are not only getting ideas above their station, but are capable of finishing the season there too. Manchester City were never supposed to have the resources for such heady achievement and the belief among their supporters, as increasingly ludicrous names and fees are bandied about each week, will only be boosted by the concern (financial and sporting) engulfing United’s. With three great spectacles and one dramatic Paul Scholes late show last season, we should anticipate another classic. Manchester derbies are back with a vengeance.

An influx of money and quality players has started to turn Ferguson’s Sauron-esque gaze away from Anfield and back towards Eastlands. Even under the stewardship of the original moneybags, Sven and Thaksin, City remained the Premier League’s wry smile. Get some money, do alright, but get thumped 8-1 by Middlesbrough on the last day of the season. Throughout the Premier League era, as we are disposed to label it nowadays, it didn’t matter if City beat United home and away, as United would more often than not win the title and all would be right with the world. ‘You enjoy your little victories, City’, gloated United fans, ‘because we will win the war’.

This season, however, on equal footing as they are, United’s war with City is condensed into two 90-minute matches. It is City though, who have the monopoly on weapons. Ferguson has reserved plenty of ire for his city rivals at the best of times, but will feel it all the more intensely given United’s patchy performances this season and the fact that a club dormant for so long is stirring, driven, as well we know, by a striker he chose not to retain. Much is made of the Carlos Tevez scenario whenever the clubs meet, and while we might think ‘get over it’, his importance to City – and what a player of his ilk could offer the current United side – is such that it is always a salient factor.

This is a Manchester United side, after all, currently shorn of much of its usual dynamism. Wayne Rooney, Antonio Valencia and Nani will all miss out, meaning United’s classic gameplan in matches of such magnitude – to attack quickly from a five-man midfield – will have to be deployed with very different personnel. United have a wealth of fit, deep-lying midfielders, but precious few available to benefit from their work. Another opportunity may present itself to Javier Hernandez to be a hero, but it would be a surprise if he starts alongside or indeed ahead of Dimitar Berbatov. The flu virus consuming the squad this week makes United's XI harder to predict than ever.

That we are even talking of this as a game of season-indicating magnitude is a testament to City’s progress. But they remain a potential threat rather than a genuine force. Defeats against Arsenal, Lech Poznan and Wolves show a side struggling for consistency among the banknotes. City might have only lost the game against Lech in the last few minutes, but they didn’t look particularly comfortable throughout. United have learned how to play in these kind of games, in these kind of atmospheres, and how to get results. City, failing to beat Spurs at home last season in the ‘fourth-place playoff’, have yet to prove themselves when real achievement is on the line. As a devout Andy Murray fan, I can tell you it’s true across all professional sports that the first major title is the hardest one to win. City need to learn to do it. That takes time and I don’t think this team has had enough of it yet.

Much of the outcome of the derby depends on Roberto Mancini’s inherent caution. City might be missing Mario Balotelli against United through suspension, depriving Mancini of one of his few creative luxuries, but the biggest miss could well be Craig Bellamy. Bellamy is the sort of player United hate playing against when he plays from wide areas – quick, direct and totally unafraid of doing it all himself. City don’t have anyone similar. Though Carlos Tevez always busts a gut against his former employers, the way Mancini decides to offer him support could decide the game. If it’s Toure, Barry and de Jong, the match could play into United’s hands. In the highly unlikely event that Mancini tries to force United onto the back foot from the off – David Silva could be key here – City could pose them problems. The first goal will be crucial.

It would be remiss not to acknowledge that the game will be hyped to within an inch of its life and won’t always deliver 4-3 classics and that yes, I have chosen to add to the hype. But the intensity of the derby is always greater with significant points at stake. Win, and City draw level with United on points. A United victory keeps up their improbable run to second place (lengthening their unbeaten run to 26 games in the bargain) and the pressure on Chelsea. And just imagine if the teams are as close when the return rolls around on February 12th. Richard Keys would be sucked into a different dimension under the weight of Sky’s Hadron Collider-style hype machine.

The return of the Manchester derby – beneficial to everyone.

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