This was supposed to be it; the last jump into the home straight where United could apply the definitive sprint finish. Revenge for the 1-6, revenge for the heartbreak of May, an opportunity to right wrongs and send a message to our Premier League challengers. April 8 was meant to be the decisive battle in a hard-fought, well-won war for the title.
However, with just eight games left to play, United are out in front, if not out of sight, 15 points ahead of City and on a seven match winning streak. It’s all but mathematically certain that the Premier League trophy is heading back to Old Trafford, and yet tonight’s fixture has suffered for it. The Manchester derby has become a dead rubber, and it’s all because of Real Madrid.
With nothing else to play for, all of the urgency, appetite and verve that was so evident in the first six or so months of United’s season looks to have drained from their title challenge. Cautious professionalism has taken the place of ferocious enthusiasm as the team prepare to slip into the grinding half-sleep of a mechanically reclaimed run-in. With Robin van Persie’s goals drying up, Rooney’s intermittent season further interrupted by injury and blind alleys at every turn for the team’s cast of wingers, in recent weeks spectators have been left wondering what else has been slipped into the mince.
United’s runners are pulling up and the match day fare is being watered down. Efficiency not fluidity is now the order of the day. After the cruel cocktail of hope, complacency and collapse suffered last season, Sir Alex Ferguson has the whip out and is ready to ride his squad over the finish if he needs to.
A third Champions League is out of his grasp for another year at least and judging by the team’s showing against Chelsea the FA Cup wasn’t a priority unless the treble was on. Fergie demands history. Everyone’s winning a double these days, and at 72 his time is coming to a close. Trebles, Champions Leagues and Premier League point records are what truly count, and if he can’t add either of the former to his legacy this May, the latter shall have to do. It’s not a bad stop-gap on the way to extending his legend once again either way.
City must also shoulder some of the blame for the dread of non-spectacle that hangs over Old Trafford. The signing of a certain Dutch striker is not the game-changer Roberto Mancini would like the footballing world to believe. From his dalliances with an undercooked 3-5-2, to the narrowing of City’s player repertoire in his transfer dealings, the grey-haired Italian has failed to progress his squad in any real way. Crashing out of the Champions League bottom of their group and hiccupping again in the league, City appear to only enjoy one way of playing. Their 4-2-2-2-cum-4-2-3-1 system is effective in the right circumstances but it is hugely dependant on player confidence, form and individual skill. They lack a functional Plan B which their three-at-the-back set-up just can’t provide, and with a squad overstocked with all-too-similar specialists there is little variety on offer to mix things up. It would be too much to say that City have regressed, they’ve merely stood still.
Does stuttering opposition excuse the stumbles of a victor? What would a recording-breaking 20th title be without a worthy, defining flourish? A dour anti-climax seems unfitting for such a landmark league win, but it would also be misrepresentative of the football played by United earlier in the season. Conversely, an adventurous or dominant win over City would likely be enough to recast these last few weeks in history as an uplifting march to glory.
The final act of any trophy win is key to how it is perceived. How different the consensus concerning United’s quality would be if the season were flipped and played out in reverse. Even a surprise final day loss to Everton would not be enough to dampen the hype around such a Premier League triumph and the manner in which it was won. Bayern Munich’s early call on the Bundesliga title would not have been the only stylish runaway success this year.
It’s not bitter or biased to suggest that champions have a duty to dominate the competition they win, especially at pivotal moments, and especially for a club that supposedly prides itself on its traditions of exciting, attacking football. Manchester United need to produce an answer to their critics on par with Spain’s 4-0 win against Italy in the European Championships; a performance that added a much needed layer of glamour to a much-criticised tournament run. A win tonight needn’t be record-breaking or even equal to City’s result last year, but a performance that at least attempts to shade Mancini’s men as spectators to United’s own game plan and ability is a must; the sort of game threatened by the first half of Madrid’s most recent visit to Manchester.
Winners write history of course, but their accounts look far more believable and vivid if others are convinced by their greatness. Sir Alex, having won a few hearts and minds on top of his silverware haul, surely knows and appreciates this, and the purchases of van Persie and Kagawa, along with his renewed faith in a slow-brewing cast of highly skilled youngsters, are all decisive moves of intent as well as function. Tonight could yet be the biggest game of the season, replacing the scene of disappointment and Nani’s controversial red card last month, but United must be proactive and claim their title in the manner their season as a whole demands.