A Premier League season is a winding road with twists and turns and bends that hide exactly what awaits around the corner. Just when you think you’ve got it figured, that you’ve finally solved the route to the title, another curve comes into view to take you in yet another direction, to yet another possible destination.
It was just three weeks ago, after all, that Manchester United found themselves eight points clear atop the table following Arsenal’s win over Manchester City, who had, themselves, led the league by as many as five points just a month before that. And now, with United’s advantage trimmed to a mere three ahead of Monday’s derby, the path could yet lead to the blue side of Manchester after it so convincingly appeared to be heading to the red.
Not that this title was always United’s to lose. On the contrary. Look far enough behind and you can still see the last few miles of a straight, smooth highway that had City on course for its first championship in 44 years before a Sunderland-size bump in the road signalled a rougher trail ahead.
That New Year’s Day defeat removed the aura of invincibility that had seemed to surround Roberto Mancini’s millionaires since the start of the campaign. A 1-0 loss to Everton followed four weeks later, and by the second week of March City had conceded first place to United after losing to Swansea in Wales. Draws with Stoke and Sunderland preceded the Arsenal loss where Mario Balotelli lost his head and got himself suspended for three matches.
A bumpy trail indeed.
United, on the other hand, got their jolt back in October when they were trounced 6-1 by City at Old Trafford. In a way, their season was redefined in that moment. A side that had opened the schedule with an eye to avenging their Champions League final loss to Barcelona by introducing a fluid, mobile brand of football was, in an instant, served notice that the bigger rivalry lay not on the continent but on the other side of town.
The Red Devils recoiled after the embarrassment; they slowed down and started again from first gear, rattling off a series of 1-0 wins before rediscovering their goalscoring touch that, not coincidentally, arrived in January in the form of Paul Scholes. From there the road flattened for a United side that went unbeaten in 12 until another jolt in the form of Wigan sent them reeling once again. A 4-4 draw draw with Everton last weekend allowed City to pull up alongside for a final race to the finish.
That Monday’s derby represents the final twist of the title route is a given. United, with even a draw, would set themselves up nicely for a repeat with matches against Swansea and Sunderland to finish the season. City’s superior goal-difference, however, would likely provide enough of an advantage in the final two rounds if they managed a win.
Derby news and notes
- As all United really require from Monday’s derby is a single point, there’s a chance Sir Alex Ferguson may recall Ji-Sung Park into the starting XI after a seven-game absence. This would allow him to pack what it too often a porous midfield while leaving Wayne Rooney alone up top with Nani and Antonio Valencia working the flanks.
- Roberto Mancini has hinted he may reinstate Balotelli, who is available for selection having served his three-match ban. The Italian has the explosiveness and quick-strike-ability to expose the United defense (as he did in October), although it’s unlikely he’ll play from the start. City are unbeaten in the four matches they’ve started Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez together in attack, and it would be shocking if the Argentine duo wasn’t dispatched on Monday.
- Johnny Evans is a late fitness concern for United, which means one of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones may be called into the centre of defense. One of the two may also be handed a start at right-back, where Rafael has struggled recently. Nani picked up a minor ankle injury in training last week but should be fine to play from the start.
- Manchester City last lost at Etihad Stadium to Everton in December 2010.
- Manchester United have kept clean sheets in their last three visits to Eastlands.
Follow Jerrad Peters on Twitter @peterssoccer