There are numerous precedents for surprises, many of them involving City themselves. The odds on a 6-1 away win at Old Trafford in the Manchester derby would have been astronomical. Yet it happened. Sunderland taking a 3-1 lead at the Etihad Stadium raised eyebrows across the country, but that happened too. The same side defeating City on New Year’s Day was unlikely if at least more possible, but still ranked as a shock at the time. Carlos Tevez’s walkout and the reconciliation between the player and Roberto Mancini took most observers by surprise, and the only thing consistent about Mario Balotelli has been his capacity to do the unexpected, for good or ill, on or off the field. Predicting any of the aforementioned events, scores or moments would have made even the most lauded prognosticators think again.
So what chance QPR following suit? For their own reasons as much as Manchester United’s, the R’s need a win. Two points ahead of 18th-place Bolton Wanderers, if Rangers cannot do the unthinkable and win at the Etihad then they are reliant on Bolton taking no more than a point from Stoke City. The Potters may be a fearsome side at the Britannia Stadium but they are safely ensconced in mid-table, unable to creep much higher and in no danger of dropping any lower. They would not be the first side to end the season with a whimper in front of their own fans, and Bolton have won six away games this season, double the number of any other team in the bottom five. For QPR, banking on a Stoke favour is not an option.
Rangers then face two choices. Do they take the fight to City, in the knowledge that City are more than capable of pushing back and overrunning the visitors’ defence? Or do they play a more cagey game, trying to soak up the pressure, intending to spring with the pace of a Djibril Cisse or a Shaun Wright-Phillips the moment City over-commit, but also inviting the City attack onwards? It is a dilemma faced by every side that has gone to the blue half of Manchester in the league this season and Sunderland are the only ones to come away with anything more than a defeat. Yet the magic formula must be there somewhere. Every unbeaten record comes to an end eventually and no team is truly invincible. The problem for QPR – and Manchester United – is that the secret may stay hidden a little too long.