MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – The defining plot twist of the most enthralling title race in years could be written on Monday as Manchester City attempts to seize control of its Premier League destiny against leader Manchester United.
Three weeks ago, United already had one hand on a record 20th title after City’s defeat at Arsenal left Alex Ferguson’s team a hefty eight points clear with only six games remaining.
But a poor run of results from United, which has taken only four points from a possible nine, has suddenly given City the chance to move into first place.
An estimated worldwide television audience of more than 650 million is expected to tune in for a match being hyped as the biggest in Premier League history.
“This is the derby game of all derby games,” Ferguson said. “It’s in the blood of the supporters and I know lots of fans who would give everything to win this game.”
City midfielder Gareth Barry also emphasized the unique nature of the top-of-the-table duel.
“People are speaking of this as being the biggest game in Premier League history and it’s a massive game to play in,” Barry said.
“I don’t think you can get away from the size of the game against United and the pressure.”
The equation for City is simple: a victory would see it return to the top of the table.
Wins at Newcastle and at home to Queens Park Rangers would then guarantee City the title, provided United is unable to make up its rivals’ significant advantage in goal difference, which currently stands at plus six.
City manager Roberto Mancini has attempted to douse the expectation level by stating that United will remain favorites for the title even if it loses, citing the champions’ final two matches against Swansea and Sunderland.
“I think they have more chance than us because we play the derby on Monday, after we play against Newcastle, that will be a very tough game,” Mancini said.
Ferguson meanwhile is relishing the challenge from opponents he views as the biggest threat to United’s position at the summit of the English game owing to the club’s seemingly limitless wealth.
City, which humiliated United 6-1 at Old Trafford in October, has rattled in 12 goals in its past three games, and its nimble strikeforce of Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez will fancy their chances of adding to that haul if Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans have another off-day.
Of all the storylines to emerge from this year’s Premier League page-turner, it is the re-emergence of Tevez that is potentially the most compelling.
Ostracized by Mancini after his infamous refusal to warm up during the Champions League defeat at Bayern Munich in September, the former United striker then disappeared to Argentina for three months.
Tevez has responded to his recall by delivering goals, adding an injection of verve to a City forward line that had been struggling to reproduce its scintillating early season form.
Tevez, who is expected to seek a move this summer, will be putting his talents on show to a mammoth worldwide audience, with a record 16 broadcasters airing the match live.
“The interest in this game from around the world is unprecedented,” a City spokesman said.