Manchester City boast the resources to win the Premier League, but Manchester United possess the resolve. The title campaign has blossomed into a fascinating duel, the race for the line resuming at two o'clock today at the Liberty Stadium and Old Trafford.
It is a case of who blinks first, who holds their nerve. After a chastening time in Europe, they finest return to a local scrap of national significance.
Before the two meet on April 30 at the Etihad Stadium United, currently two adrift of City, will expect to collect a minimum of 22 points from a possible 24 on offer against West Brom, Wolves, Fulham, Blackburn, QPR, Wigan, Aston Villa and Everton. Yet in a season of strange scorelines, both in size and shock value, nothing can be taken for granted. The Everton of David Moyes and Phil Neville could quite easily spring a surprise against the champions. Fulham will not yield lightly.
City's voyage to that Etihad date with destiny and the neighbours still resembles more of an assault course than United's journey: Swansea, Chelsea, Stoke, Sunderland, Arsenal, West Brom, Norwich and Wolves. With particular danger posed by Chelsea, Arsenal and arguably Sunderland, City may garner only 20 points from 24. Injuries, suspensions or a poor refereeing decision may make a mockery of predictions, but it is easy to foresee the Mancunian candidates being neck and neck come April 30, making the Premier League race even more compelling to a worldwide audience.
For those followers of City and United debating why such an important game has been switched to a Monday night, the answer lies inevitably in the desires of the piper-paying tune-callers of television. Such an epic collision of rivals could have been shown at the weekend, but putting the game on a Monday night is partly a sop from broadcasters to brewers. Monday evening is sluggish for business at hostelries. Now on April 30 it will be standing room only in the tap-rooms. Down the hatch and up the takings.
On the eve of the season I felt United would secure a 20th title, and only an injury to Wayne Rooney would encourage me to jump ship just yet, but even the briefest of glances through both squad-lists highlights how Roberto Mancini can call on superior assets, certainly when it comes to directing fire-power on an opposition goal. Sergio Aguero has been one of the players of the season, Mario Balotelli adorns the back pages as well as invades the front and Edin Dzeko will still contribute the occasional goal. David Silva lacks his early-season sparkle but still weaves moments of game-defining magic.
Mancini also has some momentum men, individuals like Adam Johnson who could prove key in unlocking the Old Trafford trophy cabinet and grasping the Premier League trophy. Johnson can lose possession, a cardinal sin in Mancini's eyes, but he can slalom through defences, creating chances for predators like Balotelli. With Euro 2012 looming, Johnson may be timing his run astutely in every sense.
The ace in City's pack could be a perceived knave. Carlos Tevez will never be able to reclaim the place he once had in City hearts. For those who sing of the Blue Moon, Tevez is standing alone. The Argentine moves on in the summer, to little mourning, but could leave a spectacular parting gift at the Etihad. The mischievous fates surely decree that Tevez warms up against United, rises from the bench, tears around with that phenomenal energy of his and scores the winner. Farewell to Manchester.
Tevez struck some significant goals for United, dashing on to equalise at Ewood Park on one draining April afternoon in 2008. He embodied that resilience that seems innate in those called to the red cause by Ferguson. The Scot recruits those with a will to win, a quality accentuated by close association with such a serial winner.
The taste of victory is only the briefest of intoxicating sensations for Ferguson, lasting as long as a sip of champagne, while the wretched feeling of defeat stays for days, sometimes years.
Such a reaction to results is one of Ferguson's greatest strengths, the losses driving him on. His players echo that. So if United are trailing, they fight and fight. Look at Rooney, United's most accomplished player. Faced with Athletic Bilbao's elegant, undeniable control on Thursday, Rooney ran himself into the ground, responding to Ferguson's tactical tweaks, going left-midfield, even covering left-back and also joining the attacks. His 90th-minute penalty gives United a sliver of hope going to San Mames on Thursday.
Now is the time for real men to show real character. Just as City will miss the authority of Vincent Kompany as he recovers from a calf injury, so United have lacked defensive steel without Nemanja Vidic, so cruelly denied them by a wounded knee.
United titles were built on the corner-stones of unyielding centre-halves, Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce, Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. Although improved, Jonny Evans gets caught out occasionally. Chris Smalling's cut head has yet to heal fully while Phil Jones has not always looked comfortable at the back. Jones is young, centre-half is the position where he shows most potential and at some point Ferguson needs to play him and play him and play him there. The title run-in is no time for fine-tuning but Ferguson may have no choice unless he restores Ferdinand. Unless the champions sort out the heart of their defence, their beloved title is crossing town.
It's now down to the experienced ones, to the likes of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, Rooney and Michael Carrick, guiding the callow likes of Jones and Danny Welbeck through the ravine of uncertainty that is the path to any title. Ambushes lurk everywhere. Even what should be a routine afternoon's workout victory against West Brom today cannot be taken for granted.
One particular encouragement for Ferguson is the recent form of David de Gea, who looked so vulnerable at the Hawthorns as the season opened but last week was hailed for being a one-man resistance movement at times against Athletic on Thursday. He will need to be on his toes today. Roy Hodgson has the visitors well-organised, well-motivated, determined to achieve a first league victory at Old Trafford in 34 years.
Before kick-off, those West Brom fans of a certain vintage will reminisce of one of their finest displays under Ron Atkinson, the 5-3 triumph on December 30, 1978. It was such a special occasion for West Brom, and such an exceptional match, that their team is worth recalling: Tony Godden, Brendan Batson, John Wile, Ally Robertson, Derek Statham, Len Cantello, Bryan Robson, Tony Brown, Ally Brown, Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham. Such talent. The pick of the goals were arguably Regis' flick for Cantello to finish or Regis' last-minute gem past Gary Bailey. Such memories.
Ransacked back then, Old Trafford must beware again losing some of its fortress reputation in the wake of Athletic's visit. It is becoming the theatre where other teams dare to dream.
Fans of United today and City's at the Liberty also have their roles to play as the title drama intensifies today.
Sunday Indo Sport