All eyes on the Mancunian derby

United's best bet… Wayne Rooney (centre) celebrates with Michael Carrick (left) and Ashley Young after scoring against Aston Villa in their EPL match at Old Trafford Stadium.-AP United's best bet… Wayne Rooney (centre) celebrates with Michael Carrick (left) and Ashley Young after scoring against Aston Villa in their EPL match at Old Trafford Stadium.

With only four games left for each of the two Manchester teams, City supporters refuse to stop dreaming while the Reds of United can't sleep with ease as they aren't still assured of their title No. 20. The bookmakers, though, rate City as rank outsider for the EPL throne right now, writes Ayon Sengupta.

Every day brings its own fresh assessment and each weekend adds another twist to the tale as the fight — to see who rules Manchester and who finally wins the bragging rights for this season — in the English Premier League enters the final stage.

Recently, in yet another dramatic turn of events, Manchester City's 4-0 drubbing of West Brom and Manchester United's unexpected 1-0 defeat to Wigan saw the gap between the two Manchester clubs reduced to just five points. The derby set for April 30 is almost certain to decide the fate of the two sides. (Third-placed Arsenal is on 64 points, 13 adrift of City.) With only four games left for each of the two Manchester teams, City supporters refuse to stop dreaming while the Reds of United can't sleep with ease as they aren't still assured of their title No. 20. The bookmakers, though, rate City as rank outsider for the EPL throne right now.

But tables can be turned quickly in football. As City learnt the hard way. The team, built from the scratch with the oil money of the Sheikhs of Bahrain, almost comically handed over the race to its bitter city rival after leading handsomely till Round 28 of the season. Two losses and two draws from the next seven games meant that City's fate was left to the mercy of its elite old neighbour. In the same period, United had managed six wins and that rare defeat to Wigan.

However, despite the blip, Roberto Mancini's men — contrary to whatever he says — have managed to at least theoretically keep the competition alive, and if United were to lose the derby at the Etihad Stadium, it simply cannot handle another “off-night you sometimes get in football” — in Sir Alex Ferguson's words following United's defeat to Wigan.

However, fortunately for the United supporters, Sir Alex has been through such tremors in past but almost always has been able to steer his side over the line. This season, though, has been in more ways than one dreadfully different for the Red Devils. Through large phases of the year United has been clearly second best, with the defeat to Wigan at the DW Stadium, the 6-1 humbling at the hands of City at Old Trafford and the 3-0 defeat at Newcastle being the pointers. Under the circumstances, it is definitely astounding that Ferguson has managed to guide this mediocre and deeply flawed side to the brink of another title.

The work of reconstructing the midfield with the likes of Ashley Young, Nani, Antonio Valencia and Tom Cleverley after the departure of Paul Scholes at the start of the season was uninspiring. And constant injuries to veterans Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic had left the defence exposed.

Scholes had to be coaxed out of retirement in January to give the much-needed flair and imagination to the midfield and the 37-year-old has since been imperious. In defence, the 24-year-old Johnny Evans has recently looked composed after getting an extended run since Vidic's knee injury in December. Young and Valencia, too, seem to have rediscovered their form at last. This bears testimony to the manager's man-management skills.

Ferguson himself admits that this group has no player of the calibre of Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham or Andy Cole to step up (all were part of United's treble-winning side in 1999) or even the collective power of the fearsome threesome of Carlos Tevez, Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney which took United to European glory in 2008. Rooney, probably the only proven world-class talent left in the United stable, has been the most noteworthy performer this time, scoring 24 League goals so far despite a brief injury layoff.

“This may not be the best squad we have ever had, but it's one of the biggest,” Fergie said. “We've got 26 good players, but you need that if you are going to cope with players of the quality of Vidic, Cleverley, Chris Smalling and Danny Welbeck picking up injuries like they have this season. We lost Vidic for the whole season, but I never feared the worst because I knew I still had plenty of combinations for central defence.”

The United manager was being more charitable than honest in his praise here.

City, on the other hand, under Mancini, has been a very purposeful side right through the campaign, carving close victories on its travels and throwing in the odd outmuscling performances. Sergio Aguero (21 goals) and David Silva (13 assists and 87 percent pass completion record) have combined effectively to tear open rival defences.

City looked destined to lift the silverware after a 44-year wait before a sudden jarring of nerves left the team perplexed and bewildered. The sudden loss of form of the over-worked Silva, and the phantom mental distress of the other playmaker Samir Nasri and the never-ending childish on and off-field petulance of Italian Mario Balotelli left the side distracted from its main goal. Though a semblance of order was restored and Carlos Tevez was reinstated after a season-long theatrical confrontation with Mancini, the damage had already been done.

“It is impossible. The title race is finished,” Mancini said. “I think it is too late. The title race is finished because United is a fantastic team and they have a fantastic spirit.”

However, his players have refused to give up. “We just need to continue to play the way we are and we will arrive at the top,” Tevez said.

The temperamental Argentine and Aguero have combined seamlessly with the other Spanish-speaking Silva in the last two games (Norwich and West Brom), bringing back memories of United's fearsome threesome of 2008 (Rooney, Tevez and Ronaldo). Their innovation and indefinable movements have baffled opponents.

City can now play a lot more freely now that it has been recast as the tenacious underdog, a scrappy challenger, and not the big-spending upstart it had been projected earlier.

The last two wins show a renewed purpose and City's upcoming fixtures feature two beatable sides in Wolverhampton Wanderers and QPR at home. But the match against Champions League hopeful Newcastle, away, might be a different ballgame. However, to Mancini's dismay, United has far more easier fixtures at home, against Everton and Swansea, before playing the final game of the season, away to Sunderland.

So, the 163rd Mancunian derby might still hold all the answers. United will be looking to avenge its 6-1 defeat to its neighbour earlier in the season at home, while for City it will be its last chance for resurrection.

Both sides meanwhile will try to rake up as many goals as possible. City now leads United 58 to 54 on goal difference. Though the English title has never been decided on the basis of goals, there's always a first time.

Whatever the outcome, whoever wins the League, the 2011-12 season will be remembered as the year of decline for English football. England and its clubs have lost their pre-eminence in European football. The Manchester clubs have failed to impact European competitions. The eventual EPL champion should rather be grateful to the poor performing, clueless Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham than its own showing.