The battle will be made all the more dramatic by the setting, it will be competed in the 3rd round of club football’s most prestigious cup competition, the FA Cup.
Manchester Derbies have always been interesting affairs, but they have taken on renewed importance with Manchester City’s relentless march to the top of the football world.
The El Clasico battles in Spain are intriguing especially with the battles between Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, but back in the north west of England the duels between City and United are a little bit different.
It would be crude to say that Manchester United have always been the more attractive brother but it wouldn’t be inaccurate. There is a magic about United, from the tragedy to the triumph, that just isn’t there for City.
City fans would probably disagree but they would probably be alone in their protests.
It is for that reason that City had taken the underdog tag, those who don’t have a clue mistakenly believe that all of Manchester is blue and only foreign glory hunters support United.
It’s an annoying generalisation but one that unfortunately is believed by the narrow minded.
Being from London, the brevity of the Manchester derby never hit me properly until I was older.
As a youngster I always looked at them like a band of no marks desperately trying to keep up with us. Instead I was more focused on Arsenal and to a lesser extent Liverpool and whilst City may have got the better of us on occasion, I simply saw them as a minor inconvenience.
I don’t think I was alone in thinking like that, even amongst people that are native to city.
But times have changed.
Arsenal fell by the way side, Chelsea entered the frame but are apparently going that same way as Arsenal (Liverpool incidentally are still underperforming!
But a new blue threat has arisen.
I remember the day City were taken over by the Abu Dhabi Group, it was the start of Ramadan and the last day of the transfer window and as I sat watching Sky Sports News waiting to see who was going where, City apparently tried to sign a number of players (including Berbatov who rejected them in favour of us, good for a laugh at their expense) before snatching Robinho from under Chelsea’s nose and presenting him as a Ramadan present to the fans.
City have always been a source of amusement for us and many others. Even their dealings on that deadline day and many transfer attempts following, have been laughable. Their scattergun approach mirrored a child in Toys R Us having been given their birthday money, they simply tried to buy everyone.
But at a certain point the started cutting the laughs out.
They got a quality manager in Roberto Mancini through the door, a man that had experience of winning trophies and could impart this on the team. Then they started buying tactically; bringing in players that would improve their team rather than just big names.
They were still good for a laugh though; the handling of Robinho, Gary Cook and other things meant we didn’t take them as seriously as we should have but the threat they posed meant that it was sniggering rather than belly laughs.
To compound their rise we were taking knocks of our own. The departures of Ronaldo and Tevez (the former across the city to join Mancini’s men) meant that the once immeasurable chasm between us was decreasing rapidly.
City were splashing the cash whilst we were frugal in our spending and whilst we were getting the better of them, the last minute goals saw us cheering with relief more than anything.
The games were getting closer between us and a new level of quality was being introduced. Last season the derby games displayed a plethora of the differing things our ties had to offer.
At Eastlands Mancini’s men showed why they still weren’t quite ready to be title challengers with an extremely negative approach to the game that was widely criticised in the press.
At Old Trafford they were a little more adventurous and we saw a highly entertaining game won by a spectacular Wayne Rooney goal.
Then in the FA Cup Semi Final we saw Man City growing as a club and a team when they defeated us on the way to winning their first trophy in 35 years.
I am a firm believer that had we beaten them in that semi they wouldn’t be as big a threat as they are now. It’s like a shark tasting blood, the FA Cup took the weight off their shoulders and gave them a taste for silverware.
If anyone still thought Man City were a bit of a joke, then in October the joke was firmly on us as we were humbled 6-1 at Old Trafford. Any thing can happen in derbies, it the nature of such competition, but the City defeat didn’t come as a massive shock to some.
Of course nobody expected United to ship 6 goals but in terms of United losing, being out played and out fought it wasn’t a shock. Rather it was a case of a good side finally fulfilling their potential.
The gap between United and City had been closing and now perhaps City had finally caught us. Even if we choose not to believe so the rest of the world does, highlighted by the fact United go into today’s game as underdogs. Something Sir Alex Ferguson said wouldn’t happen in his life time.
Sir Alex initially coined the term ‘noisy neighbours’ and it is one that stuck, but interestingly he too was one of the first to say that City are an actual threat. So whilst some of us were still laughing at their on and off field antics he was imploring us to take them seriously.
The rapper NaS said,
“People fear what they don’t understand, hate what they can’t conquer…”
I agree completely and the ‘hate what they can’t conquer’ part is especially poignant. For years people have hated us because we were the best, you could knock United down but never out and you always knew at some point that we would come back.
Now it appears City are ready to usurp our place as the most hated.
Previously people said of us we bought our titles (we didn’t), now these are the same accusations being levelled at City and whilst there is an element of truth in this, even in other areas people are beginning to take joy in seeing them fail.
Looking back to the ‘hate what they can’t conquer’ part, again it stands true. We as United fans may not have taken them seriously before but you’ll notice now that they are looking fierce every single United fan gets up for this game like no other.
We are more concerned with them than ever and it is brilliant that the competition between us is alive and well.
City represent a threat to United that Arsenal and Chelsea never could, they threaten to knock us off our throne in our own home, the city of Manchester.
They also represent a threat to Sir Alex and his legacy, because as his time as boss begins to near an end the worst thing that can happen is he retires with City the dominant team not only in Manchester, but in England.
As crazy as it sounds, it will leave somewhat of a smudge on his record if this is the case.
The Manchester Derby is now one of the biggest in the game. We as United used to play our part but City didn’t. Now that they are every bit as competitive as we are.
They say the FA Cup has lost some of it’s significance but like the Carling Cup a few years ago when we met in the semi final, the addition of a Manchester Derby will restore every bit of sheen that it apparently lost.
Whilst both sides wouldn’t mind a loss today in exchange for lifting the league title in May, don’t for one second think that the game won’t be played with all the vigour of a cup final.
Because with City now competing with us on all fronts that’s what derby games have become, mini cup finals being competed by two teams caught in a power struggle.