x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Enigmatic Manchester teams are in a fight to the finish

United can wonder when Wayne Rooney will return to his best; City are never sure what to expect from Mario Balotelli.

Manchester City’s James Milner and Manchester United’s Wes Brown tussle for the ball, just as the two sides are for the league title.
Manchester City’s James Milner and Manchester United’s Wes Brown tussle for the ball, just as the two sides are for the league title.

Rather than showing repeats of the four goals, the big screen at the City of Manchester Stadium displayed something that was at both more prosaic and more meaningful: the league table.

For five hours, anyway, after Tuesday's 4-0 defeat of Aston Villa, Manchester City topped the Premier League. Then Manchester United displaced them, a draw at Birmingham giving them the lead on goal difference.

Because, while three of the Premier League's four representatives in the Champions League are from London, Manchester has reasserted its claim to be the football capital of the country.

Divided by much else, United and City sit side by side at the division's summit with 38 points apiece. With two games in hand, a superior goal difference and an undefeated start to the season, Sir Alex Ferguson's team merit their billing as favourites, but the noisy neighbours, as he disparagingly branded City last season, are turning up the volume.

The sides who contested one of the dullest fixtures of the season, November's derby draw at Eastlands, are the protagonists in one of the most riveting title races.

The intrigue lies in the unpredictability. With imperfections abounding among the elite, there are very different but flawed contenders.

As Ferguson said: "I think the title is there for everyone to win or lose it. If there were five or six teams involved until the end it would be fantastic, the kind of league you dream of."

Today the Manchester rivals play, in theory, among their easier games of the season, each encountering promoted sides.

Yet United travel to West Bromwich Albion knowing that seven of their eight away matches have ended in draws; but for Javier Hernandez's improvised header at Stoke City which gave them a 2-1 victory, they would have an unlikely 100 per cent record.

City, meanwhile, host Blackpool, the supposed whipping boys who have managed five times as many away wins as United's traditional bullies.

"It is the nature of this league, every game or set of games you see a surprise result," Ferguson added.

Indeed, uncertainty has become a constant for the heavyweights; United can wonder when Wayne Rooney will return to his best; City are never sure what to expect from Mario Balotelli.

There are parallels in their schedule - City's most demanding test in January should be Wednesday's visit to Arsenal, United's a trip to Tottenham Hotspur - and differences in their methods.

City's spearhead is the refugee from Old Trafford, the hyperactive Carlos Tevez, United's the languid virtuoso Dimitar Berbatov, who they bought in preference to the Argentine.

Ferguson's men offer the perpetual promise of late salvation, even if injury-time goals have been equally costly this season; the first goal seems more decisive when Roberto Mancini's team play.

The established force are engaged on a seemingly never-ending scramble for silverware, the arrivistes part of a project that is taking them further by the year.

United can count on reserves of experience, the know-how of triumphing nervelessly from similar positions.

City's potential trump card is in the transfer market with the ensuing window coming up.

United's Eric Cantona was the last mid-season arrival to exert a decisive influence on the destination of a title when he joined United from Leeds in the winter of 1992, but City can hope that Edin Dzeko, who is said to top their shopping list, will prove a similarly catalytic signing. Unlike Mancini, Ferguson insists he will not be buying.

The encouraging element for both is that there is scope for improvement.

Indeed, they could be forgiven for peering over the fences that separate their Carrington training grounds for tips; United on how to successfully pick up three points away from Old Trafford, City's new specialist subject; their rivals for how to demonstrate the winning mentality Mancini so obviously covets from his richly assembled squad.

He should expect more from James Milner and Jerome Boateng as they settle in; with Dzeko likely to join and Balotelli a mercurial presence in attack, the reliance on Tevez should be eased.

United have an age-old habit of peaking in the second half of the season to console them, along with Anderson's recent revival.

Thus far, both have contrived to conceal their light beneath a cloak of modesty. Mancini has spent much of the season insisting that Chelsea will win the title.

Ferguson, meanwhile, said: "You don't expect to go through a season undefeated." The frequent draws and the lack of investment have served to make some underestimate United. It is rarely an advisable policy.

The regulars at Old Trafford are sanguine, comparing the current crop unfavourably with the European champions of 2008. City, meanwhile, are trapped in their usual morass of optimism and pessimism. It is a battle for domestic dominance with wider implications.

Ferguson, in his 70th year, is pursuing a historic 19th championship for United but risks seeing it go to a club he has rarely taken seriously.

City have long been accused of having an unhealthy fixation with United. Now their interest is undoubtedly legitimate. There is more at stake. In the 43rd season since their second and last title, losing out to United would be more agonising, pipping them still more rewarding.