Manchester rivals renew 'Old Firm' hostilities
SOCCER:Tomorrow’s meeting of the Manchester teams will capture the attention rather than the imagination. And the result is likely to command more interest than the performances since neither side is playing consistently well.
In fact the thought of the Premier League developing into a Manchester duopoly is depressing not only because of what may or may not be happening at Old Trafford and the Etihad, but because the strength of other likely challengers appears to be on the wane. The championship can do without becoming an infirm “Old Firm” affair.
Since the Premier League plutocracy broke away from the Football League 20 years ago Manchester United have won the title a dozen times – and Manchester City finally snatched the title last year.
This was something refreshingly different, but it’s unlikely to be repeated.
The fact that United ran their neighbours so close could not have been foreseen the previous October when City won 6-1 at Old Trafford to take a five-point lead over Alex Ferguson’s team at the top of the Premiership and go 12 ahead on goal difference. At that stage Roberto Mancini’s side were setting awesome standards in attack and defence that suggested a fundamental power shift was taking place in Manchester football.
After 15 games last season City led the table by two points from United, having won 12, drawn two and lost one with 49 goals scored and 15 conceded. Now they are unbeaten after 15 but crucially have won only nine, with six draws, while scoring just 28 goals. A win tomorrow would continue the Mancunian leapfrog and take City back to the top on goal difference, but already the act is looking a little weary.
Not that United appear to be in much better shape. While their league record is much the same as it was at this stage last season – when 15 matches had also brought them 36 points – the number of times they are having to come from behind to get a result is surely a sign that the old omnipotence is ebbing.
The rapid exchange of goals at Reading last weekend from which they emerged with a 4-3 win could not hide the fact that their defence is now repeating the shortcomings so ruthlessly exploited by City at Old Trafford last season, when United went down to 10 men. Frequent injuries among the back four have not helped but at least the will to win is as strong as ever.
Thoughts of losing never enter United’s calculations.
What goes on between the ears of Mancini’s players remains a mystery. City were worthy enough champions but are not so much a team as a series of expensive one-man acts. This may be a passing phase but City have been found out by the Champions League and while they were landed with a difficult group it is hard to imagine United making such a mess of things.
Not so long ago the thought of the Premier League being forever dominated by the Manchester clubs plus Chelsea and Arsenal was enough to prompt a yawn. Now those days are beginning to look like a free-for-all. Chelsea’s season has become a 10-month pantomime. But at least they should still make the top four, unlike Arsenal whose decline is the result of selling good players and buying lesser ones.
Liverpool monopolised the old first division from the mid-1970s to the end of the 1980s. Yet Clough’s Nottingham Forest and Robson’s Ipswich, along with QPR, Watford and Southampton all added an occasional challenge to the contest which is less likely now. More’s the pity.