x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

One hand on the title

Before they visit the Eternal City on May 27, first comes the visit of Manchester United's eternal foes.

Manchester United's Rafael, left, keeps City's Robinho at arms length in this season's first Manchester derby, which United won 1-0.
Manchester United's Rafael, left, keeps City's Robinho at arms length in this season's first Manchester derby, which United won 1-0.

Before they visit the Eternal City, comes the visit of their eternal foes. United encounter Barcelona in the Champions League final in Rome on May 27, a palatial setting in which the champions-elect, and two electrifying teams, of England and Spain will grapple for a third European Cup. But such a chic sporting date must take second place on Sir Alex Ferguson's working itinerary over the next fortnight.

For Ferguson and United, there is the trifling matter of an English Premier League trophy to close down. United's derby against City has never taken second place over their 150 previous meetings. It is hardly likely to today in their 151st get-together. Should United finish off what they started and win England's elite division, Ferguson's team will equal Liverpool's much-vaunted record of 18 titles.

They need seven points from their final four games to reach their desired destination. They will hope to do so before they visit Hull City on May 24, the final day of a league season that has brought United the Club World Cup and Carling Cup, two welcome but worthless baubles in comparison to what they continue to covet. United host City, travel to Wigan on Wednesday, welcome Arsenal on Saturday before winding up at the KC Stadium.

They are almost there, but one imagines City would take great pleasure in putting a spoke in United's wheel at Old Trafford, a venue which they raided and departed with a 2-1 win last February. If Barca have been portrayed as the most fluent side in football, City, supported by their Abu Dhabi investors, could be held up as its most affluent club, even if a football team cannot be judged by their market value or potential.

As Mark Hughes, the City manager, has discovered already this season, it is one thing having large reserves of money available, quite another managing to generate a winning formula from the training ground test tubes. He has experimented on a grand scale with figures such as the £32million (Dh177m) Brazil striker Robinho, who is the club's top goalscorer with 15 goals, but Hughes, once a battle-hardened United frontman, has also experienced some testing times. Longer term consistency in the league remains City's main blister, a subject in which even Arsenal have been found wanting this season.

City occupy eighth place in the standings, a massive 33 points behind United having played one game more. They have clambered to wins over West Brom, Everton and Blackburn in their past three league outings, but, somewhat startlingly, last managed four successive Premier League wins in 1992. Old Trafford would seem like an unforgiving venue to pursue such a record having managed only two away wins in the Premier League this season, those two flashes of success coming at Sunderland and Everton.

Hughes was a player under Ferguson when United suffered that memorable 5-1 lashing at the old Maine Road 20 years ago. He would like to revisit such times in his role as the City manager. The talk in Manchester may well swirl around facing Barca in a match that is hovering so deliciously on the horizon, but first they must triumph in their home city. dkane@thenational.ae United v City, KO 4.30pm, Showsports 1 & 2