Manchester City’s biggest game of the season is just hours away and the Blues go into the clash with Manchester United in much better form than their red-shirted neighbours. With three successive victories to their name, City have genuine cause for optimism when they welcome Sir Alex Ferguson and company to Eastlands for the fourth Manchester derby of the season.
The three previous meetings between these eternal rivals produced more than enough goals, action and incident to last many a year, with United taking the league tie at Old Trafford in somewhat controversial fashion thanks to Michael Owen’s late, late goal. City got a modicum of revenge in the Carling Cup semi-final first leg, winning 2-1 through a Carlos Tevez double – which the Argentine celebrated in memorable fashion – but a week later Wayne Rooney sent the Red Devils to Wembley at the expense of their neighbours. This Saturday’s date promises to be equally as enthralling the aforementioned games and arguably has even more riding on it than January’s two-legged fixture – with both teams’ end of season hopes resting a great deal on the outcome of the lunchtime game. United cannot afford to drop any more points as they hunt down Chelsea at the top of the Premier League, while just a few spots below City are striving to clinch Champions League qualification.
City go into the game having hit their stride in impressive fashion in recent weeks, dismantling Wigan Athletic, Burnley and Birmingham City in fearsome style at the same time United’s title hopes floundered and their Champions League dream ended. The weekend City humiliated Burnley was the same weekend United’s championship push was severely dented by Chelsea and the mood around the two clubs could not be more different ever since. Roberto Mancini’s men have found not only their shooting boots but the swagger of a team that will challenge for honours in the near future. Conversely, United have been robbed of their main outlet for goals – although Rooney could return on Saturday – and the air of desperation that surrounded the draw with Blackburn Rovers was not one befitting of champions. A win for United at the City of Manchester Stadium would reverse the two sides’ fortunes but Mancini has galvanised his team since the clubs last met and numerous key players are back from injury or suspension and in excellent fettle as well.
Foremost of City’s top performers lately has been Adam Johnson, the young winger who may be on the verge of an England nod ahead of the World Cup. With a provisional squad due to be named on May 16, the former Middlesbrough player is catching the eye at exactly the right time, although Fabio Capello’s comments that Johnson now needs to gain international experience may hint to the 22-year-old being forced to wait until after the summer tournament. It would not be underserved if Johnson did make at least the provisional squad however, such has been the high quality of his performances – even more impressive considering he was only a bit-part player for Boro when they were a Premier League outfit – he made 26 appearances for the Riverside club last year, the most he ever made in a season for the side from the North East. A meteoric rise, then, but one which shows no signs of stopping just yet – Johnson looks totally at home on City’s right flank, linking with players far more experienced than he and with weightier trophy cabinets too, yet Johnson is clearly their equal on the field.
Johnson may find himself tested like never before on Saturday – having joined City after the Carling Cup derby double-header, rarely if ever will he have faced a left-back the quality of Patrice Evra and with Craig Bellamy continuing on the right to get at the ageing Gary Neville, Johnson will be in direct competition with the Frenchman for much of the game. Given what Johnson has already achieved in his short City career the challenge of facing one of the world’s best full-backs will hold no fear – an attitude City as a whole should take into the derby. United are never there for the taking – they have too much resilience for that – but the stuttering nature of their title run-in means a first league victory since February 2008 is within City’s grasp and with it, a Champions League place.