|Manchester City's manager Roberto Mancini shouts out during his team's 1-0 win over Manchester United in their English Premier League soccer match at The Etihad Stadium, Manchester, England, Monday, April 30, 2012. (AP Photo/Jon Super)|
Column: City, not United, may be Manchester's best
Manchester United or Manchester City. Which of those two names -- one globally famous, the other quickly becoming so -- will be engraved on the base of the English Premier League trophy remains anyone's guess, even after nine months and 36 rounds of matches in a crazy season embroidered with more twists and turns than a night at the Bolshoi.
Even had they crossed all their fingers and toes, the league's sponsors and marketeers cannot have dreamed of a climax more engrossing and uncertain than this: Two games left to play, everything still up for grabs.
The one certainty is that nothing will ever be the same again. Because after years when English football was largely bathed in United red, this is the season when the pendulum swung, the page turned and the guard changed.
United may still win the league title, its 20th. The winning habit that manager Alex Ferguson has woven into the fabric at United may get it over the line again.
But having lost both home and away to City this season, there's an argument to be made that United is no longer Manchester's dominant team, nor even its best. Neutrals can now convincingly claim that City, not United, is Manchester's most entertaining side, often producing better football and, increasingly, fielding better players. The future in Manchester -- and, by extension, England -- looks more blue than red.
City's 1-0 defeat of United in the manic Manchester derby on Monday was more than just a result which ensured that the title race will remain undecided until the final day, on May 13. This looked and felt like the shape of things to come.
One of City's best players was attacking midfielder Samir Nasri. The France international who quit Arsenal last year could have played for United, but instead was lured by City's Abu Dhabi owners whose seemingly limitless petro-wealth has completely transformed the fate of the club that shared the same city as United but which was poor, sorry and for decades had none of its success.
Against United, Nasri was inventive, persistently troublesome and won the corner from which City captain Vincent Kompany headed in the winning goal.
Darting David Silva and striker Sergio Aguero, both hired from sides in Spain, also were pests in attack for City. Yaya Toure, pinched from Barcelona, threw his weight and power around in City's midfield.
In fact, across the field, in almost every department, was evidence of City's huge spending power. That is why City has become such a problem for United. That wealth has forced Ferguson's respect.
"They aren't going away," he said pre-match. "The financial support they have means that we are going to be playing them in a lot of big games."
Not for the first time this season, City manager Roberto Mancini outthought Ferguson on Monday, too.
The last time they met in the league, in October, City won 6-1. Ferguson called it his worst defeat in a half-century of football.
To avoid a repeat, Ferguson erected barricades on Monday, stuffing his midfield with Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Park Ji-sung and Michael Carrick, veterans he trusts. Together, they have played more than 1,700 games for United, some bigger and more important than this one.
Ferguson's containment strategy paid a compliment to the attacking strengths of City, the league's highest-scoring team, and it showed that Ferguson recognized, respected and perhaps even feared City's ability to hurt him.
But it also was unambitious -- and it didn't work.
Ferguson acknowledged as much by resorting to Plan B in the second half, pulling off Park then Scholes and sending on dynamic Danny Welbeck and winger Antonio Valencia.
But still United could not manufacture the goal it needed to cancel out Kompany's. It never really came close.
Ferguson lost his cool, exchanging furious words and yap-yap-yap hand gestures with Mancini on the sideline. That suggested the extent to which the challenge from City is unsettling the peace of mind and legacy of the manager who has seen everything.
"They're in the driving seat now," Ferguson said of City afterward. "They only need to win two games of football."
City's last two opponents -- Newcastle and Queen's Park Rangers -- won't be pushovers. Newcastle needs wins for a chance to qualify for European football next season. QPR could drop out of the Premier League if it loses its last games.
United's final opponents, Swansea and Sunderland, look easier, because both are lodged in the middle of the league table and thus, in theory, have less to play for.
If City and United both win their final games, then the blues will likely be champions because they've so far scored more goals and conceded fewer than United.
If that happens, Ferguson will rue even more the goals United conceded in the 6-1 loss to City.
"It's his worst nightmare," said Gary Neville, Ferguson's former captain and defender who made 566 appearances for United and now is a commentator for television broadcaster Sky.
"Losing the championship on goal difference is what he always talks about, every single season."
And once this new-look City side has its first championship -- which would be the club's first since 1968 -- then it could become a very tough juggernaut to stop, as United was.
That was the warning from United captain Patrice Evra before Monday's game. "If they win the Premier League, a page is turned and it's a revolution, and revolutions have always been about Manchester United," English newspapers quoted Evra as saying.
Or, as a banner at the City stadium said: "The noisy neighbors are getting louder, Alex!"
A quarter century ago, when he took over at United, Ferguson's challenge was to usurp Liverpool. As he famously later said, he wanted to knock England's dominant team off its (expletive) perch.
Ferguson did that last year, when United won its 19th league title.
Now, the process of revolution, renewal and change is happening all over again.
Only this time, Ferguson is on its receiving end.