Fear and loathing dominates neighbours' clash of contrasts
Manchester's red half is feeling the pressure ahead of what could be a landmark derby, writes Paul Wilson
Wayne Rooney is overpaid and overweight, and fast becoming the most overrated player for club and country since David Beckham. Manchester United are heading the same way as Liverpool did in the '90s, and Alex Ferguson and the owners are in denial about the club's shocking decline.
Fergie cannot keep saying there is no value in the transfer market when his side has just been stuffed by a Newcastle team who picked up Demba Ba, Cheik Tiote and Yohan Cabaye for around the same amount he wasted on Bebe last season, or less than half the sum he spent on a goalkeeper he no longer appears to fully trust.
And now for the good news. At least United do not have to worry about catching Barcelona any more. Working out how to beat Blackburn should be much easier.
A week is a long time in football, especially one that includes two unexpected defeats, and trawling the extensive comments section that followed the Manchester Evening News's online match report from Newcastle, there was scant evidence of the eulogies or the universal admiration that had greeted the beloved leader's 70th birthday a matter of days earlier.
Even if allowance ought to be made for the possibility that some of the more caustic observations had been posted by Manchester City fans, in a derby week anything goes. Particularly when the derby is in the third round of the FA Cup, and United have already made ignominious exits from the Carling Cup and the Champions League. Particularly when Ferguson is hoping to avoid a run of three defeats in meaningful, mid-season matches for the first time in almost 20 years, since a losing spell that predated Eric Cantona's arrival and the manager's first English title. "Never has a derby match meant so much to the Reds," the MEN's editorial rather grandly proclaimed. "This Cup game is the most important in living memory for United."
Ferguson himself does not see it quite like that. "You want the FA Cup to be a break," he said. "You don't get that if you are playing your local derby, but this is exactly what happened in my first season in England. We drew City then, but at least we were playing at home."
United won that tie 1-0 with a goal from Norman Whiteside. The neighbours back in 1987 featured Perry Suckling in goal, Mick McCarthy at the back and Imre Varadi at the front, and under Jimmy Frizzell, the first of 14 City managers Ferguson has encountered in his 25 years in Manchester, were heading for Division Two.
The difference now, not that Ferguson likes to admit it, preferring to praise Tottenham's football whenever he has the chance, is that City's rise has put United's shortcomings under a ruthless spotlight. You would not know it to listen to the moaners and the doubters, but United still have a chance of the title this season. They are much better placed than Arsenal or Chelsea, and though their injury problems are real and their financial situation seemingly unhelpful, they have all the experience in the world upon which to draw if it comes down to a face-off against City or Spurs in the run-in.
Despite the six points dropped in the last two games this is still one of United's best ever starts to a Premier League campaign, and in only one previous season had they scored more goals by this stage. Yet even though they have form over course and distance and a reputation for growing stronger after the turn of the year, the perception remains that they will enter some sort of meltdown should City inflict a third successive defeat.
On the whole any meltdown appears unlikely, if only for the reason that it is usually a mistake to base any sort of prediction on the result of a derby match. United survived being beaten by City in the FA Cup last year and still ended up champions, and though it may take another month or so, they will eventually get most of their missing midfielders back. "We've enough experience to cope," Ferguson said, although he did admit to being shocked at how comprehensively his most experienced available side had been outfought at Newcastle. He was not alone.
There has been something untypical about United's last two defeats: they seemed to accept their fate without protest. There was no barnstorming of the Blackburn goal in the final 10 minutes at Old Trafford, and there was no fight and therefore no prospect of recovery at Newcastle. Ferguson claimed only last week that United were good at losing, in that they usually respond to setbacks and disappointments with a firm statement of intent, but the normal level of feistiness has lately been missing. They are in danger of becoming meek losers, which would be so un-United and un-Ferguson. The mere possibility of displaying insufficient appetite for a derby has City fans abuzz with excitement.
Ferguson complained after the 6-1 Premier League humbling that his players had been too naive in chasing the game when there was no realistic prospect of gaining a result, leaving opportunities for City to score more goals instead of accepting defeat and organising themselves for damage limitation. That may have been a realistic appraisal, but it was an unusual one, and the first of a series of un-United events this season.
It was followed by the distinctly un-United sequence of one-goal wins, with Rooney deployed conservatively in midfield, which in turn was followed by the low-key performances against Benfica, Crystal Palace and Basel.
Those were expensive opportunities lost, though at least United could cling to the flimsy excuse that they did not see the danger until it was too late. That will not wash with a Manchester derby.
The big game this afternoon has been billed as such in flashing lights since the moment the Cup draw was made. At almost any point in the past 25 years United players and fans would have been looking forward to it with just as much enthusiasm as their City counterparts, away from home or not. If that has changed in the past week, and one senses that it may have, it would be the most un-United development at all.
United were so unrecognisable against Blackburn a few boos from home supporters were heard as early as the end of the first half. Should they lose their swagger to the extent of failing to get up 'for the most important derby in living memory' then Ferguson cannot rely on a three-year love-in before finally handing the reins to someone else.
It is already being suggested he has stuck around too long, by the same bloggers who were remarking even before the club released a statement on the matter on Friday night that Rooney's body language practically screams that he is no longer happy in his work or enamoured of his manager.
Contrary to popular opinion, United fans do not demand the earth from those who wear the shirt, though they do expect them to look as if they are enjoying it. Several pointed out that in addition to being the bargain of the season, Newcastle's free-scoring Ba plays with a smile on his face instead of a scowl.
"You will get criticism in this job, but you learn not to take it personally," he said. "People are entitled to their opinions but I don't have to read them." Quite so, and if Ferguson is in need of support, his rival manager is more than willing to provide it.
"We are very close to United now, but even if we finish on top this season I think Sir Alex can stay for many more years," Roberto Mancini said. "When you have won 12 titles you can do anything you like, I think. Nothing that happens now can damage his reputation. After 25 years, it would be impossible."
Maybe so, but a third defeat in three games would at the very least make Ferguson feel his age. Back in the mists of time, it was an FA Cup win that kept him in his present job. "It can be a useful break from the league," he said. "But only if you get a result."
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