The Manchester derby: everything else is irrelevant
It seems almost absurd to suggest that signing Paul Dickov on a free was as little a risk as paying £38million for 23-year old Sergio Aguero in the summer of 2011 but such is the change at Manchester City that if, indeed, a signing was not to materialise, they could, well, just get someone else. And if they were not to get the title this year, they could always improve their squad and attempt to win it the next. (As it turns out, Aguero has been superb — he has managed nearly 30 goals in his début season and he, along with Yaya Toure and David Silva, have forged a sort of Triple Alliance; a powerful force that everyone thinks could win but one they all want to come second.)
Manchester United fans might not admit it, and, of course, why should they but City’s kamikaze spending — which should, yes, be objected to at the same time — has made for a captivating title race made more compelling by an old, unimpressive-for-too-long rivalry; if United were to prosper at their rival’s expense, then it would make for the sweetest of victories and a domestic triumph above most.
And so, is Monday’s Manchester derby the biggest ever? ”It seems to be mentioned before each Manchester derby that the importance of the match increases every year and I suppose that’s no different now,” says Steven Allweis, editor of Manchester City-fansite View from a Blue. “That’s due to the fact we are genuine challengers for various trophies and not just some hopeful upstarts. City are a real threat to United’s dominance, so with this game effectively deemed a title decider, I think it’s fair to say it is the most important Manchester derby ever.” Playing City now, as Sir Alex Ferguson says, has “an importance which, at this moment in time, supercedes the Liverpool games.” Heck, this may even be the most important Premier League game to date in the 20 years of its existence: yes, not only has the fixture emerged as the biggest derby in the country, but it’s one that may decide the title.
I asked Allweis to be honest, here; how well does he think Manchester United have performed this season? “After virtually every game, we hear how United weren’t quite at their best or didn’t display the form that was on show in the last couple of years. As a one-off explanation that could be feasible, but perhaps United just aren’t as good as they were last season or two years ago, and this is their best form. However, even if the players are different, there is still that ruthless winning mentality that drives them on,” he concedes. “Even if not utterly dominant, United still find ways to be victorious and that’s not exactly a bad trait to have!”
It is a testament, some argue, to Sir Alex’s managerial nous that this otherwise ‘average’ Manchester United side are doing so well this season; a view that would probably have more credibility if his team were not only sitting at the top of the table, but freely scoring goals and heading for a points tally that can only really be preceded by a noun-turned-adjective that usually refers to a prehistoric mammal with long, curved tusks. All three of Jonny Evans, Michael Carrick and Antonio Valencia deserve a lot of credit for where United are now; but many have tended to overlook the trio, Valencia to a lesser extent, curiously, in favour of Wayne Rooney.
When you look at some of the things Rooney has said this season, what you may be able to infer is a man that values goals above anything else; which is fine, but it’s a wonder whether he himself thinks he’s not playing as well as he should be. Truth is, he’s only had a good season where he has scored plenty — but Rooney plays in a position that demands more than numbers. His negligence to waste as many attacks as create is a slight worry; his tendency to drift out and drift in only when United have a penalty is a major concern (and a bit of a hyperbole, but it has happened on a few occasions).
Sir Alex thinks Rooney is the “type of player who has to play on the edge in a game” and ”when it’s a really close and competitive game” or else “when it gets to that casual bit, he’s worse than the rest of them.” Which is a rather reasonable explanation; Rooney’s cameo at 3-0 down to Chelsea in February helped United to a 3-3 draw. That is not always true, of course (the recent 1-0 defeat to Wigan saw him subbed after 65 minutes); but United will need him at his best — while they’re not entirely as reliant on him as some will suggest, he is still their most talented player and one that Steven Allweis points to as the obvious danger-man; but then he earmarks Valencia as the man he wishes to have an off-day: “He’s been outstanding in the past couple of months and is the type of player that we could most certainly do with,” Allweis says. “He’s old-fashioned in the sense that he sticks out wide, receives the ball, takes on his man and puts crosses in, but it’s proved hugely effective and his battle with Gael Clichy will be an intriguing one.”
Moving away from the derby for a moment, Allweis thinks Manchester City have “overperformed” based on his personal expectations. “My hope at the start of the season was that we would finish in the top four. Having achieved Champions League football last season, I felt it was imperative to qualify for the competition for the next campaign, so we’ve done that and more. Many fans would have expected a genuine title push though I think you’ll be hard-pushed to find a City supporter who says we have underperformed.” How would you feel if you finished second, then? “If we finish second, there will be disappointment because we led the table for the majority of the season, but it will be an improvement on last year and that is a positive. If we continue to build, then I’d expect us to win the Premier League next season.”
And what of Mario Balotelli? If City end the season trophyless, many would point to him as the man who cost City the title. Do you agree? He can’t have been that much of a burden, though; indeed, despite some of the stupid — and stupidly hilarious — things he has done, which City would rather not have happened of course, he has surely made up for it with satisfactory or more-than-satisfactory performances on the pitch? “I think the criticism Balotelli receives is ridiculous,” claims Allweis. “I’ve actually written an article detailing some thoughts on Balotelli and other various reasons as to why we might not win the title, but to blame it purely on Mario is naive and simplistic. He’s certainly a factor, though a relatively minor one in the grand scheme of things.”
A similar question was posed on Carlos Tevez — had he been playing for the last five months, what sort of table would we be looking at? “His form since returning has been superb: not just the goals he has scored, but his all round contribution. His workrate is first-class, constantly putting pressure on opposition defences and he seems to have rejuvenated Sergio Aguero. That, of course, makes it all the more frustrating that he has spent most of the season working on his tan and playing golf in Argentina.”
Allweis, however, is sensible in answering the question, and it’s one you cannot but agree with even though so many others see it differently: “It’s easy to forget that we didn’t exactly struggle too much in his absence. Despite Tévez not being here, we were scoring plenty of goals, winning games and were atop the table for most of the season. His presence may have helped in the last couple of months as we suffered a slight blip, but we coped well for the most part without him.”
Back to Monday — is it actually, literally, a title decider? “If United win or it’s a draw, yes [they will go on to win],” says Allweis. “If City win, then we would be favourites though still have a couple of tricky fixtures remaining.” Those ‘tricky fixtures’ he refers to is City’s trip to Newcastle United — and then one against, er, Queens Park Rangers. It would be utterly desperate of United fans to expect Newcastle to do them a favour — what could and might happen then is irrelevant at such a late stage. United will have to do it at the Etihad. And given what’s at stake in the derby, everything, absolutely everything, is comparably irrelevant.
I asked Allweis a question I myself had interest in and, while not exactly vaguely to do with Monday’s game, felt out of place in the actual piece. Do you buy into “the best team is the one which ends up above all the rest” or do we need to look deeper than that?
“It totally depends on what you define ‘best’ as. City could win every game in the season 6-0, but lose to United twice. United could win every game 1-0 and would then clinch the title. City might have played the best football, scored the most goals and entertained in matches, but United would have the best record. It’s an interesting question.”