London: Today will be a manic Manchester Monday that barely needs any hype and frenzied build-up to emphasise the importance of a night that is likely to determine the destination of the Premier League title this season.
On Sunday, around 8,000 people took part in the Greater Manchester marathon but the epic title race between the city’s two football teams always looked destined to come down to a sprint finish.
Neither Manchester City nor Manchester United would have chosen the derby at the Etihad Stadium to be a title decider, but it appears that way as the sides clash with just three games left and Sir Alex Ferguson’s side leading their neighbours by three points.
Ferguson captured the importance of the game when he described it as the “biggest ever derby” while there is a strong argument to say it’s the most significant fixture in the 20-year history of the Premier League.
The battle for the title has ebbed and flowed throughout the season. One minute it looked like City would run away with it, the next United seemed set to render the derby inconsequential.
As it stands, both sides can rightly say their destiny is in their own hands.
City’s superior goal difference means they will win the title if they beat United and take maximum points from their remaining games against Newcastle and QPR.
For United, a draw will be enough to ensure they remain strong favourites to retain their crown, sustaining a three-point gap with two games to play against Swansea and Sunderland.
The two managers have differing views on the importance of the game, although Roberto Mancini has leaned heavily towards pessimism in an attempt to take the pressure off a group of players who lost form when United were breathing down their necks.
"If City win the derby I don`t see them losing the title," is Sir Alex`s view. "I think they`d have a great chance if they beat us. But that is the only result that`s any use to them. Anything else would leave us strong favourites.”
Roberto Mancini, on the other hand, insists United will remains favourites for the title even if they are defeated on Monday night.
"We have only one chance to go back to the top of the league, but even if we take it against United we still have two tough games," the Italian said. "The situation still favours United, because we have three difficult games to the end of the season, whereas they have one difficult match and two easy ones."
Historically, City have been seen as the chokers in Manchester, mocked by United fans who considered them barely an afterthought while the Old Trafford club swept everything before them. The blue side of the city were failures, their supporters renowned for their self-deprecation and loyalty in adversity.
A few years ago, Ferguson was acerbically hitting out at City as “noisy neighbours” but now he speaks of mutual respect, complimenting the strength of their squad and praising Mancini’s managerial skills.
The dynamic is different now. The gap has been closing and City will be considered slight favourites to win a game that will put the club on course for a first title since 1968. That year was the last time United and City went for trophies in the same season, with the title going to Maine Road largely thanks to a 3-1 win for Joe Mercer’s team in the derby.
Forty-four years later, City have home advantage and the momentum while United will arrive with memories of their crushing 6-1 defeat to the noisy neighbours at Old Trafford back in October.
All over the pitch, players will line up at the Etihad who could decide the destination of the Premier League trophy. Could Wayne Rooney or Sergio Aguero make the difference? Will Paul Scholes or David Silva control the midfield? Which of Joe Hart and David De Gea will make the potentially match-winning save?
It will be the perfect culmination of what has been a titanic battle since the first day of the season, with United and City both set for points totals that would ordinarily be enough to top the table after 38 games.
Whatever the result, Monday night will be looked back upon by one side as a decisive game while the other will be left with a feeling of regret having let such a major opportunity slip through their grasp
The whole of Manchester is worried about going to work on Tuesday morning as this rivalry embarks on its latest chapter. And never has it been so important.