Barclays Premier League leaders Manchester City travel to Old Trafford on Sunday to face their bitter rivals Manchester United in one of the most keenly awaited derbies in many years.
City, with two first-tier league titles to their credit, will want to prove that their assault on this year’s trophy is more than just verbiage by beating the current champions, and holders of a record 19 titles, in their own backyard.
Both Manchester clubs will first be involved in the European Champions League midweek with United traveling to Romania where they will meet CS Otelul Galati on Tuesday night without Rio Ferdinand.
The squad which flew out earlier is as follows :
Amos, De Gea, Lindegaard; Evans, Evra, Fabio, Jones, Smalling, Vidic; Anderson, Carrick, Fletcher, Giggs, Nani, Park, Young, Valencia; Berbatov, Diouf, Hernandez, Owen, Rooney, Welbeck.
City are at home to Spanish club Villarreal on the same evening but know that anything short of a win would leave their future in the competition in serious doubt. After two games they find themselves three points behind Napoli and five adrift of Bayern Munich who played them off the park in their recent meeting in Germany.
While Europe is the most lucrative tournament on the fixture list, this week it will prove to be merely a distraction as the clubs gear up for Sunday’s massive encounter.
Over the past weekend United showed their pedigree in rescuing a point at Anfield where they had to come from behind. A Steve Gerard free kick gave Liverpool the lead which was then cancelled out by a late Javier Hernandez equaliser. Sir Alex Ferguson sprang a surprise in leaving Wayne Rooney and Nani on the bench and resting Nemanja Vidic.
City on the other hand put Aston Villa to the sword with an immaculate display despite keeping David Silva, Edin Dzeko and Samir Nasri on the bench. Mario Balotelli opened the scoring with an overhead kick followed by Adam Johnson, Vincent Kompany and James Milner, with a belter, getting on the score sheet in a 4-1 win. With United drawing this meant that City were two points and two goals clear at the top.
While City have the backing of Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan they are considered the richest club on the planet and have spent accordingly. Manager Roberto Mancini has opened his trophy account with last season’s FA Cup and is now setting the pace in the league.
I, however, remain unconvinced of their title credentials.
If we have regard to the big games in which Mancini was required to pit his management skills against the best in the business and whose clubs also have substantial resources then he is found wanting.
Let’s look at two must-win games where he fell short this season.
The first was the Community Shield where United with goals from Smalling and two by Nani wiped out City’s 2 goal halftime lead following strikes by Lescott and Dzeko.
Of course nobody cares about the Community Shield unless it just happens to be a Manchester derby.
Mancini might play it down as a training exercise but it was anything but on the day.
The second was the nightmare performance against Bayern Munich.
City looked like they couldn’t hold the ball for more than two passes. Bayern were sending wave-after-wave of attacks and City were fortunate to get out of there without a highly embarrassing scoreline.
With the squad available to Mancini the only explanation for that performance was the negative approach adopted by the manager in team selection and tactics. He set out for a point and inexplicably kept looking for it in the same way even when City needed to score to get it.
One clear positive has been the way Man City have flattened sides this season as opposed to hanging on to leads.
This, however, will need to be demonstrated at Old Trafford on Sunday.
If Mancini sets out his stall in the same way as he did in Germany he is going to find Old Trafford as intimidating as the Allianz Arena. City need to set themselves for the win if they want to prove that they have genuine title credentials.
The little matter of Villarreal also awaits and when a manager has one of the most expensively assembled squads in the world then the fans have every right to expect nothing less than two victories.
If Mancini can achieve that — when it really matters — then City will send a shockwave through the Premiership and a warning to Europe not to write them off just yet. If not it may well be another season of same old, same old.