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A derby to beat the very best

AS the debate rages over who will emerge triumphant from ‘El Manico’ tonight, one winner is already guaranteed: the Premier League.

Hundreds of millions around the world will tune into the Manchester derby, enthralled by this fight for the right to be kings of England.

All the strengths of English football will be on display from bursts of technique to endless tribalism. There will be the two impassioned supports, filling the air with chants, including some that would make Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown blush.

If City score, there will be a mass Poznan, the reverse line-dancing borrowed from Poland, as they chase a first title in 44 years. If United score, there will be wild scenes of celebration, their followers knowing that a point or more takes them a stride closer to a 20th title. Such is the interest that the men with bulging satchels believe it will be their busiest ever match with £50m gambled.

There will be the entertainers, the ball-users who spread sunshine across the landscape of English football. The hosts will lay on the darting dribbles of David Silva, the predator's stealth of Sergio Aguero and the muscling runs of Yaya Toure.

The visitors will hit back with the touch and work-rate of Wayne Rooney, the flying wing-play of Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia and the passing of Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick.

There will be two good young keepers on display, the rapidly acclimatising David de Gea in the United goal and the consistently excellent Joe Hart. The City keeper leads the race for the Golden Glove with 15 clean sheets.

Individually, but particularly collectively, so much is at stake that tempers could become frayed. The referee, Andre Marriner, will need to balance taking firm control, intervening when temperatures and studs rise, and allowing the game to flow.

There will be tackles to make a hard man wince, tugs of shirts and occasional tumbles, but let us hope that the talking points revolve around the players' positive qualities.

Part of the widespread attraction of the English fairground ride is the ups and downs, the many tales of the unexpected.

It is hard to remember when the Premier League soap opera contained so many remarkable story-lines, probably not since the chaos-filled season of 1994-1995 with its kung-fu kicks, bung allegations and drink and drug scandals. This season has seen controversies over handshakes, ghost-goals, sackings and strange owners.

Some things don't change. Alex Ferguson's hunger for success endures. The memory of losses like the 6-1 rout by City at Old Trafford earlier in the season haunt the United manager. After that game, Ferguson invited Roberto Mancini into his office for a drink. The Italian had come prepared, clutching a bottle. “We talked about the red wine,'' said the City manager.

“No, it wasn't cheap. The wine was good. We didn't talk about the game. I am very young and I have a big respect for him, his achievements and Manchester United. When you are with a manager like Ferguson who has won everything for 25 years you should have respect.'' Respect? Yes. And determination. Mancini is an ambitious man. “One of the things that attracted me to City was the chance to change their history,'' said Mancini.

“Winning trophies is important everywhere – whether it is Barcelona, Real Madrid or Manchester City – but when you win with a club like City you change history as well.

“That would give me a greater sense of satisfaction. For over 40 years they haven't won the league championship, so if we do it it'll be better than at a club that is used to winning titles.

“Just to be fighting for the title with three games left shows that we have progressed and worked well this season. For this year and maybe for the future we have replaced Liverpool as United's main rivals.”

City will continue to grow on and off the pitch, seeking to generate revenue from all quarters. A game at a stadium named the Etihad screened on a subscription channel reflects the commercialism rampant in the sport, yet football has always been so.

Even in the 1890s, the teams who eventually became City and United printed programmes containing all manner of information.

But advertising of wares is rather more sophisticated now. So is the football.

No wonder the world's gaze will rest on events in Manchester tonight.