The biggest derby for decades, or of all time, will be played this evening, with the title more than likely going to whichever team wins tonight.
Scott the Red: City were 8 points clear and are now 3 points behind. What went wrong?
Danny Pugsley: There is no doubt that City hit a sticky patch (where they took four points from four games) at an inopportune point in the season but far too much emphasis was placed on City’s perceived failings rather than giving due credit to United for what was a fantastic period of results where they barely dropped a point over a dozen or so games. For all the perception that this is far from a vintage United side they are undoubtedly still strong and the overall quality throughout the Premier League-wide is also lower. With the ability to consistently win game after game left no margin for error on City’s part and when they eventually did slip it was always going to prove so costly.
STR: Are you excited or anxious about next season, bearing in mind United are unlikely to have the same crippling injuries they’ve had this season?
DP: I fully expect both City and United to be the two challengers again for the title next year and it wouldn’t be a surprise if it is again as close as this season. I do think there will be a slightly different dynamic to the title race though. You mention the way United have been hit by injuries, which is true, but has this been countered by the fact there hasn’t been a deep Champions League run to contend with (and thus provide a distraction)? With both sides crashing out early in the Champions League (and Europa League for that matter) there will be added emphasis to their respective campaigns next season and the ability to manage this alongside the Premier League means we may not quite see the at times relentless pace we have from both sides in the League.
STR: What do you make of Roberto Mancini claiming both Tevez and Balotelli were finished at the club, only to go and play them again?
DP: I have followed Serie A closely over the years so any outbursts from Mancini are not quite the surprise to me as they are to most given his predilection for them during his time in Italy. With Balotelli I do think he is playing the role of exasperated father trying to deal with an errant son and this frustration boils over from time to time. The Tevez case is very different though as although it was said in the heat of the moment immediately after the game by a clearly upset Mancini (which was evident from the video clips) he did mean it and from that point the intention was that Tevez had indeed played his last game. If a move to Corinthians or one of the Milan clubs had materialised in January we’d still be praising Mancini from taking a stand and a tough stance against the scourge of egotistical footballes. The difficulty is that without a side coming in for him what do you do with Tevez? If Tevez then apologises and shows necessary contrition does it makes sense to bring him back or do you keep him ostracised, which ultimately benefits no-one. It is a far from ideal situation but clearly the pragmatic view (rather than one driven by emotion) has been taken. How this translates to the longer time I guess is something that still needs to be resolved.
STR: Would you like Tevez to stay?
DP: As I touched on above, this is a difficult one with no ideal resolution in many respects. He appears to have shown the necessary attitude and application to re-earn the trust of Mancini and – perhaps most crucially – the players. One of my concerns when he came back was what impact his return would have on the shape of the side and how Mancini likes to set up but what it has done is allowed him to make a couple of subtle changes in approach which have benefited the side and re-invigorated the likes of David Silva. What I could never understand was why he wanted to move: here you are, a player in the one of the top leagues in the world, feted by the fans, winning trophies and challenging on all frontsl whilst all the time having your ego and wallet stroked in equal measure. Why leave? And where to, as there are what, a handful of clubs who could in theory afford him?
From a pure footballing perspective the side is better with him in it but not only is there the baggage involved but the spectre of the next fall out is omnipresent so is it worth to risk that potentially destabilising effect again? I may be completely wrong on this but my view is that he does now stay at City and that at some point during his hiatus he has finally realised in his career that the grass isn’t always greener. His actions were such though that I don’t see any kind of relationship with the fans being re-established though; tolerated rather than accepted.
Maybe ask me again though when he fails to return for pre-season training…..
STR: Who has been your most important player this season?
DP: He had a very noticeable dip in form post-January, where the assists, chances and goals dried up but taking the season as a whole it would be David Silva. Sergio Aguero runs him a very close second though and his play and goalscoring record this season is superb for a young player in his debut season in the Premier League.
STR: Which player do you think has improved the most?
DP: A player who hasn’t really attracted the plaudits and has played pretty much in the shadow of Vincent Kompany is Joleon Lescott. Consistency wise, you can make a case that he has had a better season than Kompany and whilst he had struggled at times following his move from Everton he is now probably playing as well as he has ever done.
STR: Which United player would you most want in your team?
DP: Admittedly this is based on me seeing City’s players week in week out and United’s no more than a handful of times a season, and is probably testament to the collective will of United’s side, but I don’t see many players in key positions that I would necessarily consider swapping. In the important areas City now have very good players in place. One player who has always impressed me in all aspects of the game is Antonio Valencia and he would provide a real option wide for City, but if you were choosing one player it would have to be Wayne Rooney, surely?
STR: Will this season be classed as a failure if you win nothing?
DP: Yes, but with a caveat attached to it. After winning the FA Cup last season the knock-out competitions were a disappointment this year (particularly some of the naivety shown in the Champions League) but whilst not winning the Premier League would be a big disappointment given the position they have been in I still had City as finishing second heading into the season. What this season has done though is ramp up expectations for next season though when the title will be the expectation.
STR: Are you proud that Manchester is now dominating English football or would you quite happily see United fall below the London clubs?
DP: To be honest, I think far too much energy and emotion is wasted by fans concerning themselves with what goes on with other clubs and it isn’t something I’ve ever really bought into. Looking ahead I do think it is clear that there will be Manchester 1-2 placing in the league though. Based on this season at least they look a level ahead of the London clubs.
STR: Which player would you most like to see City sign this summer?
DP: This depends on who is likely to leave. The area where most is up in the air is the attack where one or all of Tevez, Balotelli and Dzeko could depart and when Tevez was absent it was shown to be difficult to carry just three strikers so to be utterly predictable I’ll say Robin van Persie.
STR: If you don’t win the league, I assume you still want Mancini to stay?
DP: Definitely. Mancini is certainly not without fault and there is room for improvement in some areas but if you sack him who realistically is a better candidate out there? Regardless of the outcome this season he will take a lot away from it: don’t forget this is his first title challenge in England so lessons will have been learnt and the mindset of the side has totally changed during his time in charge. It is a sign of the position City are now in that a trophy-less season is now a disappointment but I have no doubt that he will back next season. The long term concern I do have for him is his Champions League record. He was always likely to get a pass this season but as well as the demand for title challenges he now also needs to make a serious run at the Champions League.
STR: What are your predictions for Monday?
DP: I do think that we may see a fast start to the game rather than a cagey opening, with both sides looking to land an early blow. How vital will the first goal be? When scoring first United’s record is W26 D2 L0 and City’s is W23 D2 L1 and when leading at halftime both are unbeaten – United W21 D1 L0 and City W16 D1 L0 – which gives a good indication of how strong both sides are if they do get ahead. As to the result, I don’t see how anyone can predict the outcome with any great confidence but I’ll go so far as to say whoever tops the table on Monday night after the game will go on to win the title.