x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

City v United: Millions will tune in to watch

Countdown to the derby There is more at stake in this Manchester derby than just local bragging rights. Audio preview

Wayne Roney, left, the Manchester United striker, and Edin Dzeko, right, of Manchester City, may well lock horns again in tonight's match at Etihad Stadium. Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images
Wayne Roney, left, the Manchester United striker, and Edin Dzeko, right, of Manchester City, may well lock horns again in tonight's match at Etihad Stadium. Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images

"This is how it feels to be City," sang Manchester United's travelling support throughout much of the noughties, their twist on the Inspiral Carpets' classic. "This is how it feels to be small. This is how it feels when your team wins nothing at all ..."

Reds have mocked Blues for years and called their fans bitter. They are convinced that City fans would rather see United lose than their own team win, but the line about not winning trophies has been quietly dropped after last season's FA Cup success. City supporters, in retaliation, have long derided United fans for being "glory hunters" and from being anywhere but Manchester.

City's marketing team have used their claimed "real" Mancunian identity to promote the club, an image of Carlos Tevez appearing above a provocative "Welcome to Manchester" strapline on a city centre billboard. It was soon vandalised with red paint. As with derbies across the world, fans on both sides are not interested in the truth. In Manchester, it seemed that what happened on the pitch came second to moral superiority and one upmanship off it. It used to be the only way City could get level, but that has changed.

Both sides still seize on anything for ammunition. When City's FA Cup homecoming appeared poorly attended, pictures of a half-empty Deansgate flooded the internet.

There could have been a million City fans behind the camera. Blues did the same with United's rain-sodden return after the defeat by Barcelona last May. Online arguments raged for days. And they called each other sad.

There are extremists on both sides who are obsessed with the other. Reds who claim indifference, yet who loathe City more than more established rivals such as Liverpool. And Blues who really do "Only hate Man United" - as they are so keen to sing.

City's recent rise has seen the venom in Manchester's derby increase and it will come to a head tonight. There will be no middle ground, no possible result which will appease both sets of fans. A red win or draw and United will be six or three points ahead with just two games to play and a 20th league title imminent. A City win will see them level on points with a superior goal difference and unquestionable momentum taking them towards a first title in 44 years.

City were last crowned champions of England in the days of Joe Mercer, when their star players were Englishmen such as Francis Lee and Colin Bell and it is 44 years since they played neighbours United in a derby game that, until now, was considered the biggest Manchester derby of all time. City won that one 3-1 against league leaders United and went on to win the title - their last.

United have won 68 derbies to City's 44 with 50 draws, but for a long time the Manchester derby has simply been too one-sided to qualify as one of the great world derbies. Because of the gulf in these neighbours' respective positions, the game did not have the intensity nor importance of games in Milan, Rome or el clasico in Spain. United's main domestic rival in the league was not City so the derby became parochial.

Games between United and Liverpool, Arsenal or Chelsea have recently been of bigger global importance until now. Tonight's game is the biggest in world club football so far this season, first versus second in the world's most popular league, the established power against the quickly developing challenger.

Barcelona and Real Madrid may be more glamorous and be played in bigger venues, the atmosphere may be crazier in Buenos Aires, Porto Alegre, Rome or Istanbul, the hatred more visceral in Glasgow and the security operation more complex when Ajax and Feyenoord meet, but no matter. It is on a Monday night too - there is almost no other football to compete with the game.

An anticipated worldwide television audience of 500 million will watch, plus the 48,000 inside the stadium, including 2,600 United fans. Black market tickets with a face value of £46 (Dh275) are selling for £600 in Manchester and many United fans who have been to every game this season will not be in the Etihad Stadium as richer fans with better contacts snap up tickets. It is not only the stadium which has sold out. Many Manchester pubs have issued tickets too and will be full to capacity.

The streets of night-time Manchester will be quiet, everyone will be watching the game. Derbies are always a big event in Manchester. Tonight, the Manchester derby is a big event for the rest of the world.

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