LONDON — What a fabulous season this is.
Every week there is at least one mouth-watering must-watch game and Saturday’s offering is Manchester United vs. Manchester City, when the Blues hope to extend United’s losing streak to two matches.
Given what is at stake — United leads what Sir Alex Ferguson called its noisy neighbors by five points with a game in hand, Carlos Tevez returning to Old Trafford and the police warning the Argentine not to do anything that might incite the crowd — it is impossible to imagine anything but an intense, exciting derby where every tackle will have an extra edge to it.
It may not be for the feint-hearted, but for any football lover the lunchtime feast is the perfect hors d’oeuvres for the rest of the afternoon’s games.
United’s defeat at Wolves means it will not emulate Arsenal’s Invincibles of seven years ago, but the loss was offset by Chelsea’s defeat by Liverpool and Arsenal throwing away a four-goal lead to draw with Newcastle.
City knows that defeat at Old Trafford would realistically end its slender hopes of winning the title — even a draw would leave it with Mission Virtually Impossible.
United has spent much of the season getting good results without playing particularly well, comeback wins and stoppage time strikes underlining the spirit of Ferguson’s team but papering over some alarming cracks.
Edwin van der Sar has played like he is 30 rather than 40, center-backs Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand have been rock solid, Nani provides some stardust, but United still relies heavily on the old stagers Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes.
Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick and Anderson have not been hugely effective and United lacks a playmaker in the mold of Arsenal’s Samir Nasri or Cesc Fabregas, Rafael van der Vaart at Spurs or even YaYa Toure, who is proving to be far more than a midfield destroyer for City.
Ferguson will probably start with Giggs and Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney in attack.
Berbatov has had a productive season in terms of goals, but his 19 strikes have come in nine games with five against Blackburn plus hat tricks against Liverpool and Birmingham. He is the best infrequent scorer in England.
Rooney is still far from the Footballer of the Year he was chosen as last season, there have been encouraging signs of a recovery (not a word normally associated with the player), but he has yet to be the consistent threat he was a year ago.
All of which makes it even more remarkable United has lost just two games since August.
City manager Roberto Mancini has struggled to find the right blend for his array of superstars.
Edin Dzeko and Tevez will lead the line, though the Italian must decide whether Tevez plays off the Bosnian or in a more forward role.
Tevez has proved a thorn in the side of his former club, scoring against it in both legs of last season’s League Cup semifinal, while Dzeko has a goal-a-game record against United, scoring for his previous club Wolfsburg in both Champions League group games.
In midfield Toure, plus two from Gareth Barry, James Milner and, if fit, Nigel De Jong give City a dogs-of-war quartet, with David Silva an inventive, skillful attacking force.
United has dropped only one point in 13 Premier League games at Old Trafford, averaging three goals per game, but in a season that has consistently provided the unexpected City is capable of making the title race more than a one-horse race.
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IF MOST CLUB managers had their way, international friendlies would be scrapped. But Aston Villa’s Gerard Houllier would have allowed himself a smile of contentment after two of his players, Darren Bent and Ashley Young, scored the goals that gave England a 2-1 win in Denmark.
Bent does what he tends to do which is score goals, leaving his critics who doubt his pedigree with an empty argument.
“He’s a very clever player,” said Fabio Capello. “He gets in good positions to score and is one of our important players now.”
Young had given little more than a few tantalizing glimpses of his talent in an England shirt, but he took his winner with the composure of a veteran.
He reveled in the free role handed to him by Capello who said: “This position is really good for Young because he is free and causes problems in the middle of the pitch.”
Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere did enough in 45 minutes in his first international start to at least give Capello food for thought when the Euro 2012 qualifiers resume next month against Wales.
It will surely not be long before the midfielder is a regular fixture in the side, but the star of the show in Copenhagen was Danish. Ajax teenager Christen Eriksen made the most of his international shop window and was superb, a creative midfielder who will have a queue of Premier League clubs knocking on the Dutch club’s door this summer.
Eriksen looks a very special player, and it is no surprise Arsenal is said to be the favorites to sign him.
Under Arsene Wenger, Eriksen could become a true great — yes, he’s that good.
NICKLAS BENDTNER wishes it to be known that he deserves the £50,000 a week that Arsenal pays him because of the sacrifices he has to make.
These include “not being able to go out to eat in a restaurant with your girlfriend without photographers chasing you” and not being able to go skiing, “which is the biggest thing I miss because of football . . . it is one thing taken away from me by football that other people can do.”
I am unaware of constant paparazzi pressure on Bendtner. I would have thought showbiz snappers would have had bigger stars to pursue than an Arsenal substitute, though he does rate himself one of the best players in the world.
And most who do not earn their living on Planet Football might consider putting skiing on hold until you are 35 is a small sacrifice for £2.6 million a year.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for theLondon Daily Telegraph.