The forthcoming clash between Manchester United and Manchester City may not be providing the kind of title-defining ‘showdown’ that Sky were undoubtedly hoping for when the fixture generator spat out this particular derby date so late in the season, yet Monday’s game remains hugely important for both clubs.
In truth, the destination of the 2012/13 Barclays Premier League trophy is already effectively decided (barring one of those ‘Devon Loch’ collapses Sir Alex Ferguson is fond of referencing) with United bringing a seemingly unassailable 15-point lead into their latest contest.
Yet there is a sense that Ferguson and United have no intention of hitting cruise control between now and the end of the season.
The manner in which City won the title last term will not have faded from the memory over at Old Trafford, both in terms of how United let an eight-point lead slip with six games remaining and the scenes up at Sunderland when news filtered through of that goal from Sergio Aguero.
|Capital One Cup|
|Man City win||£40.80||(9/25)|
You can be sure that it will be drummed into the United players that clinching the title alone will not suffice, mainly because they have the opportunity to win it by one of the largest recorded margins in the 38-game Premier League era.
A strong finish from United could even see them top Chelsea’s 2004/05 total of 95 points, which was also the last time the league was won by a double-digit margin. Recent cup exits to Real Madrid and Chelsea will surely only fuel rather than stall their title ambitions.
Although the league has gone for City, they cannot afford any let-up in their own performance.
Six days after the derby, they face Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final and rather than serving as a distraction, a trip to Old Trafford will provide the perfect test for the game ahead, with players eager to impress and catch the eye after a season that feels as though the champions have taken a step back from the heights of 2011/12.
In some respects, it serves to illustrate quite how far this particular version of Manchester City has travelled if a second-placed finish and a (minimum) FA Cup semi-final appearance is achieved.
Yet there is no doubt that this season has felt like a disappointment in many ways.
The attacking fluidity witnessed throughout the majority of 2011/12 has flashed only intermittently; key players such as David Silva, Yaya Toure, Vincent Kompany, Joe Hart and Sergio Aguero – totems during the title win – have all, at one stage or another, suffered injuries and dips in form.
Boss Roberto Mancini had identified the need to build on last season and during the summer, he targeted Eden Hazard and Robin van Persie (the latter, of course, eventually joined United and has since proved a vital cog in their winning machine).
But after his chosen additions slipped through the net, the Italian’s resigned demeanour in some early-season press conferences was one of a man who believed City sat on their hands at the vital time of the transfer window and instead of landing the leading lights, decided to make do with a B-list cast.
There has, however, been brighter moments of late. Last Saturday in particular saw a potent City attack cut through an admittedly complicit Newcastle defence but the manner of Silva’s performance capped his recent excellent run of form and Yaya Toure, new contract now in hand, was at his marauding best, a juggernaut in midfield.
The season may end up in Premier League disappointment but City know there is still much to play for as they bid to bow out on a high by ensuring that silverware is won for the third successive season.
There is also, of course, the added importance now attached to a Manchester derby that resonates beyond merely the three points at stake.
For so many years local pride was the prize as the clubs were generally operating at opposite ends of the division (if they were even playing in the same division).
Undoubtedly the Manchester derby is now the game, in the way that United-Arsenal and United-Chelsea once were; the by-product of a largely two-horse Premier League race.
This was evidenced last season with City’s rare double, the 1-0 win at Etihad Stadium seeing City erode a once-impenetrable deficit and the 6-1 hammering at Old Trafford contributing to the goal difference that eventually separated the two sides.
This season, United triumphed at the Etihad in December, with Van Persie’s last-minute winner coming at a point where the two sides were just three points apart and perhaps providing the impetus for a run that has seen United drop just seven points in the subsequent 14 games.
It is a stretch that has moved them out on their own in many of the key statistical categories and it is therefore no real surprise that United also start this game as 23/20 (2.15) favourites, while City are 11/5 (3.20) and the draw is a 12/5 (3.40) chance.
Despite City’s struggles this season, as we approach the tail end of the 2012/13 campaign the first throes of spring may also have heralded a brighter time after a long winter period where it was difficult to shake off a prevailing sense of gloom.
For Mancini, whose future is continually the source of speculation, a win at Old Trafford would create a platform at least where his side could finish the season on a high, clawing back as much of the gap on United as possible (which in turn would guarantee second place) and buoying them ahead of their Wembley date with Chelsea the following weekend.
And despite United’s dominance this season, a derby triumph would, in some way, also remind the Reds that while they may have wrested the title back from City’s grasp, the taste for success acquired by the champions last term will make them even more determined to win it back in 2013/14.
Danny Pugsley is the Managing Editor of renowned Manchester City blog ‘Bitter and Blue‘ and the author of ‘Man City 365′.