Will United silence their noisy neighbours?
With the Premier League season tantalisingly poised, Xander Drury evaluates the title credentials from both sides of Manchester as ‘squeaky-bum time’ returns.
So the balance of power has finally swung to the all-too-familiar 'Red' side of Manchester. Although United have not been top England's premier division since mid-October (apart from the briefest of spells in February for 24 hours), the ruthless manner in which they cast aside West Brom seems to suggest they are going to be hard to beat.
Despite their recent defensive frailties, in their last 8 outings, United have claimed 22 points from a possible 24, beating Tottenham and Liverpool in recent weeks, with Sunday's victory at Old Trafford propelling them to the top of the table as City faltered, leaving Ferguson in a reflective mood.
"At this point of the season points will be dropped and you have to make sure you don’t drop as many as your opponents. I don't mind being top of the league just now. I'm quite happy with that."
United's intent was inspired by their dynamic triumvirate upfront, consisting of Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernandez and the talismanic English striker Wayne Rooney. Following his brace on Sunday, Rooney's season tally has now climbed to 20, now just 8 short of surpassing George Best and Denis Viollet in the club's all-time scoring charts. Recovering from his autumnal scoring drought, Rooney seems now to have retrieved that clinical and instinctive scoring touch at the crucial time. Ferguson certainly agrees that Rooney's purple patch could be integral to United's title push.
"If Wayne gets to 40 goals I will be absolutely delighted because we will be in business then. He is on a hot streak".
Bouncing back from Thursday's lacklustre defeat to Athletico Bilbao, Ashley Young continued his rich vein of form on Sunday, Paul Scholes continued to stress his importance in the side, orchestrating the midfield with nonchalant ease, and even the much criticised Jonny Evans and David de Gea appear to have regained that confidence and resilience Ferguson has been craving for all season.
Events could not have turned out differently in the south of Wales on Sunday afternoon. Swansea yet again proved to represent the sternest of tests to top Premier League opposition as City left the Liberty licking their wounds. Manager Roberto Mancini was left to rue a number of missed opportunities and lamentable defending, yet remained defiant on City's title aspirations.
"We shall fight Manchester United until the end. The season is long and the situations change every week."
However, the decline in City's away form should concern Mancini most. Having collected 16 points and 23 goals in their opening 6 fixtures away from the Ethiad, they have only mustered 8 points and 4 goals in their last 8, providing a precarious springboard to rebuild their assault on Premier League glory before their showdown with United at the Ethiad on 30th April.
To make matters worse, in comparison to United's comfortable upcoming schedule (including home games against Fulham, QPR, Aston Villa and Everton), City are going to have to negotiate a far more daunting fixture list locking horns with Chelsea and Arsenal, demonstrating to Mancini's men that there is no room for error now City have surrendered the initiative in the pursuit of domestic supremacy.
Notwithstanding, in spite of this stumble in form and lack of experience in closing out titles, the raw statistics still suggest City's title challenge could be the stronger, boasting an unrivalled 100% home record and the highest goal difference in the division. What is more, who can forget that infamous afternoon in October? Surely City's 6-1 drubbing of United at Old Trafford still threatens to derail the Red Devil's title chances or has it conversely merely served to fuel Ferguson's zeal to fight back stronger?
Despite having been installed as odds-on-favourite to claim their 20th league title, as we all know, United's quest is not going to be all plain sailing. There are bound to be a plethora of unforeseen shocks and setbacks along the way as we near the irresistible business end of the campaign. Surely Mario Ballotelli will have another instrumental part to play?
Or what about City's other wildcard? That mercurial Argentine. Carlos Tevez.