Greg Johnson looks at why Manchester United must go for the uppercut against Manchester City in tonight’s Premier League derby or risk damaging their own victory like the faded glory of modern heavyweight boxing.
The causes for heavyweight boxing’s failing fortunes have been blamed and cited far and wide. From the attritional tedium of slow, lumbering fighters to professionalism’s purge on personalities, the sport’s biggest hitters have lost their box office clout.
Yet while boxing worries itself over the quality of its sporting supply, could it be that demand has in fact shifted elsewhere to the realm of goalposts, crossbars and avant garde hair design? Has football become a surrogate home for the drama, structure, celebrity and stories that once elevated heavyweight showdowns to the level of world-stopping spectacle?
Across Europe’s top leagues, title races have become season-long duopolies: intense feuds and brutal duels between two genuine, opposing heavyweights. The appetite for pre-season gossip within each league has birthed functioning pre-fight hype machines while transfer deadline day is now ritualised institution; the new weigh-in.
Spain’s La Liga is the most blatant of the big four leagues in this regard, with the chase for the domestic title a promoter’s cartel of infinite rematches and trophy laden El Clasico series between Real Madrid and Barcelona. In Italy, Juventus have assumed their traditional position as kings of the Serie A ring after having another ignominious comeback. They are the perennial, scandal-ridden titans of the Italian scene; happy to take on all-comers, whether they are of Milan, Naples or elsewhere.
Over the Alps in the German Bundesliga, Bayern Munich have wrapped up this year’s most one-sided league campaign. While Dortmund have managed to take the title for the last two years, the Bavarians’ unmatched financial might makes them de facto champions, hampered more by their own mismanagement and complacency than competitive equals.
The Premier League can likely sympathise with their Teutonic cousins. England’s top-flight is now well settled into its rhythm of two club combat spread over 10 months, with Manchester United the dominant team of the Premiership era.
While there remains plenty of intrigue and interest to be found on the English undercard – historic clubs tussling it out for third and fourth place, the jockeying for progression and position in the top half, and relegation survival – the buzz around the title race is unavoidable. Billed as the fastest, toughest and most intense league in the world, the Premier League branding relies on blockbuster championships that twist, tilt and turn as the season goes on.
Following last season’s histrionics, the 2012/13 season was all set to be the English game’s own Rumble In The Jungle as the rivalry between Manchester City and United exploded into an era of classic, tireless contest. Tonight’s game at Old Trafford should have been the title decider – the last round – but with United 15 points ahead and riding atop a seven match-winning streak, the match looks almost trivial. The Thrilla In Manilla will have to wait.
To their credit, Manchester United have been a wrecking machine winning 25 of their 30 games and scoring 70 goals – an impressive reaction for a team who could have been out for the count after the final day of last season. Rising up from the floor and to their feet, ready to go again, it was as if Sir Alex Ferguson had summoned the spirit of Rocky Balboa to steady his charges for the challenge.
Such was the fullness of the manager’s response, his team looked best set-up to fight on multiple fronts at home, abroad and in the cups. With the prospect of another odyssey into the madness of an oil-boosted title race, Ferguson strived to out-score his opponents and cement his legend with a beautifying flourish. Another Champions League or even a second treble may have been all it took for the Scotsman to finally consider retirement, with little more to do or achieve. The signing of Robin van Persie looked to be a gift from the Glazers purchased to help him write his own legend in style.
However, having been floored by a sucker punch red card and Real Madrid in the Champions League, the chance to win another European title or complete an improbable treble was lost for another season at least. A deflated United soon locked into professional caution mode and Sir Alex retooled for a different kind of history making. The FA Cup was expendable – after all, everyone’s winning a double these days – and the new goal became Chelsea’s record of 95 points in a Premier League season.
With City so far behind, a repeat of last season’s collapse looks unlikely, but title number 20 and a record-breaking points tally will not be put at risk. Fears abound that tonight’s derby could well regress into a turgid, stodgy affair or uptight, jabbing football. Based on his comments regarding last season’s run-in 1-0 derby defeat Ferguson suggests a similar, negative approach would be a mistake, but then again his manipulation of the pressroom for his own ends above and beyond clarity are well known.
At home – at Old Trafford – United should seek to dominate and deliver the definitive knock-out blow. Champions have an obligation to win decisively for their own glory and to prove their strength and the strength of the league. A defeat to City would add embarrassment to United’s eventual title win and discredit their early season form, but without a defining moment in their run-in United’s 2012/13 season will not feel properly grounded.
Matching and overturning the 1-6 isn’t a requirement – after all, that was a massacre of United’s own un-doing brought about by false hope and reckless attacking – but a performance that seeks to marginalise City’s tactics and players would be an ideal result, adding some much needed legitimacy and glamour to this season’s final round.
Without that spark, this year’s title race will wrongly be remembered as two over-loaded brutes trading flat blows, bereft of any skill, timing or finesse. If it were possible to somehow flip the season around and play it in reverse, this United side would likely be remembered as a proper footballing side fit for the history books. Floating butterflies, stinging bees and all the rest of it.
What are your predictions for tonight’s derby and what will the result mean for the Premier League?