The thing about obituaries is that it is better to publish them after the subject has died. Two weeks ago, Manchester United were the champions in all but name. T-shirts had been printed to celebrate their 20th title, a United-supporting bookmakers had paid out on them, endless articles were being written about Roberto Mancini’s future, and the season was fizzling out, as City blew their unassailable five-point lead (eight if you write for a tabloid, ten if you’re Mark Lawrenson on Football Focus. Five if you like to deal in facts). There were rumours that when the two teams met on 30th April, City players would have to form a guard of honour for the United team. At the very least, United could clinch the title at their neighbour’s ground.
Not any more. United have wobbled twice over the past fortnight, and a door has opened. The lead is down to three points, and if City win the Manchester Derby next week, they will go top of the table. As will be mentioned later, that is only half the story, but it certainly a surprising turn of events.
Elsewhere, Everton’s wholly unexpected comeback against United on Sunday was the greatest news Sky Sports have ever had. Their spring blue riband event, stupidly positioned on a Monday night, had seemingly turned into a damp squib. Now, it’s all systems go. Advertising space will be at a premium, the dollars will roll in, the hype machine has had new batteries put in, and will have seriously overheated by this time next week.
And already Sky have hyped the game beyond comprehension. Think the last days of Rome, couple that with a World Cup Final, mix with the Rumble in the Jungle, add a dash of the last day of the Ryder Cup and garnish with a selection of the greatest penalty shoot outs. Magic Mega Manchester Mash-up Monday is only days away. Or Mancini Meltdown Monday if City lose their nerve, or he waves an imaginary yellow card. New montages are being prepared as we speak, moody images of both managers aligned to a bombastic soundtrack, as two gladiators go to war, to the death, winner takes all, there can be no prisoners, it’s the clash of the titans, the biggest game in Premiership history, the dawning of a new era, it’s a……sorry about that.
A hundred players will be wheeled out to vomit forth endless banalities about the upcoming match. The buzzwords will be experience, pressure, and history. The United players have been gagged (but not the ex-players, sadly), the focus is intense. The announcement of the match referee is headline news. Desperate attempts are made via social media sites to get Yaya Toure banned because he may have raised two fingers at some opposition fans 80 yards away. Either way, I’ve bought some Immodium (Plus), and picked up my beta blockers. It’s going to be a nervy week, and a nerve-shredding night.
In reality, not THAT much has changed. City are 2/1 for the league now, having been 12/1 just a couple of weeks ago. A couple of weeks before that, they were 1/2. United are still favourites, and rightly so. Whilst many a City fan may now proclaim that the title is now in City’s hands, it is also in United’s, so it’s a pointless cliché. If City should win next Monday, they then have to do it all again, beating Newcastle away, unless United slip up against Swansea or Sunderland, which despite the last fortnight, seems unlikely. City may well have to win two cup finals, and then meet a team fighting for its premiership life, led by their ex-manager, on the last day of the season. At least United will play two teams with little to play for, their summer holidays already booked, their minds already on that lovely beach in Antigua.
Normally, it would be correct to talk now about swings in momentum, in confidence, and balances of power. We were assured that United had the experience, had been there and done it, and would cruise over the finishing line. That’s what I thought too. But there have already been too many swings to know what lies ahead. It only takes a mis-timed tackle or a bad refereeing decision to cause another seismic swing. It becomes harder to call when you consider City’s lengthy troubles away from home, and the fact that even as United accumulated win after win, their performances were distinctly average (at times). Who is in better form now? It’s a grey area.
Now it is down to the managers as much as the players. Mancini surely knows that a win is vital, and must stick with his two free-scoring Argentineans up front. But then again, a draw leaves a slim chance of title glory, a loss none at all. As for Ferguson, he’d probably be happy with a draw, leaving the title in United’s hands with a good cushion, but can you set up a team to get a draw? He’s unlikely to do that. And for the losers, the ultimate punishment – a Sky interviewer acting like a moron and asking the worst questions possible. Andy Burton thinks nothing of asking Carlos Tevez if he has dived when replays showed he had his ankle stamped on. A Sky interviewer feels no shame in trying to make Terry Connor cry. Geoff Shreeves thinks it’s acceptable to tell Ivanovic live on air he will miss the Champions League final. The stakes are high on Monday – the chance to avoid these buffoons.
Thankfully Chelsea have dug deep in the Camp Nou and out-hyped anything Monday could bring. The attention will rightly be theirs for a good couple of days. Sometimes the hype is justified, sometimes the game gives you amazing nights like Chelsea fans experienced this week. They too were written off, a team on their last legs months ago. Now they could win two trophies. A funny old game indeed. On Monday the game might well be a dour one, the hype more about the consequences of the result rather than the quality of match expected. Either way, the atmosphere will be electric, the footballing world watching on. Let’s hope it at least partly lives up to the billing.