Man City and Man United ready to play out final act

Posted by Mark Payne

A jubilant Robin van Persie celebrates his derby-winning goalGettyImagesA jubilant Robin van Persie celebrates his derby-winning goal in December

At Manchester City's Etihad Stadium in December, Robin van Persie's late free kick to score the winner in Manchester United's 3-2 victory capped a marvelous opening to the campaign. The goal consolidated what the previous four months had been telling us. United were a swashbuckling team who fought to the death and were hell-bent on reclaiming the Premier League title. However, with the season reaching its final furlong, United are limping toward the line.

- Curtis: Typical Man City
- Brewin: Reaching for credibility

As the months have passed, great comebacks have been replaced by sterling consistency. Where City have taken their eye off the ball to lose at Southampton and Everton, United have kept six consecutive clean sheets in the league, and three of those games have been 1-0 victories. Manchester United are a stylish team on occasion, but they are ahead because they can do the dull stuff, too.

Upon this bedrock, United have built up the 15-point cushion they take into Monday's Manchester derby at Old Trafford. Sir Alex Ferguson will not like it one bit, but people are talking and writing about the title race as if it is already over. Whilst it very likely is, losing to City would put serious question marks over the quality of the team in a season which has been petering out since the loss to Real Madrid.

United were clearly affronted by the manner in which they lost the title last term, and they began the season in determined fashion. Van Persie's arrival had put everybody on their toes and the team pushed on. Twenty-five victories out of the first 30 games in a season is a record in this country and something to be proud of. United have also scored 70 goals so far, 15 more than City, and have a chance of breaking their goals-scored record.

However, the statistics tell only one side of the story. Although United played well for the first 10 minutes against Chelsea in their first FA Cup match, that was the last convincing football they have played. It was four weeks ago.

In fact, Manchester United have not beaten a team of calibre since they defeated Everton 2-0 at Old Trafford at the start of February. In the meantime, they have registered draws against Tottenham, Real Madrid and Chelsea. In follow-up games against the latter two sides, they lost. Manchester City despatched Chelsea contemptuously in their last big match and their players seem more motivated by the bigger occasion.

The ambitions of the two clubs are now sufficiently high that failure to make a dent in the Champions League constitutes a failure. As such, both managers could feel downcast about their seasons thus far. Mancini has again bewailed the club's refusal to back him in last summer's transfer market. "We need to improve our team every year, and in the summer we need to buy the players who can make the difference," Mancini said.

Meanwhile, Ferguson still rues the loss to Real Madrid: "I would have loved to win the European Cup again but we got knocked out in circumstances that everyone is still talking about."

The gap at the top has forced the City manager into accepting the title is all but gone. If that is the case, their FA Cup semifinal against Chelsea in five days is effectively the most important match of their season. Given this is so, a quiet and uneventful draw at Old Trafford might just suit Mancini's men. After last season's 6-1 fiasco, the same could be true for United too.

In the past few years, this fixture has produced goals, drama, humiliation and moments sublime. With the race all but run in the Premier League this time out, there is only pride at stake. That means a lot in the northwest. However, both sides can be forgiven if they are caught thinking about what might have been.

Follow Mark on

ESPN Conversations