Rob Parrish looks at how the Premier League title race could all come down to the Manchester derby at the Etihad Stadium.
By Rob Parrish - Follow me on Twitter @skysportsrobp
Last Updated: 23/04/12 5:25pm
When Sir Alex Ferguson is prepared to admit that Monday's Etihad Stadium showdown between City and United is the biggest Manchester derby of his career, it is clear that the next 90 minutes for the fierce rivals will be a fixture that defines even more than just this season.
We already know that the small matter of the Premier League trophy is on the line, but the prize for the victors in a contest where both clubs have their destiny within their own hands will run beyond the iconic piece of silverware which is officially classed as priceless and tips the scales at four stone.
Roberto Mancini may be sounding slightly like a stuck record in recent weeks with his protestations that the title race is over, but it cannot be denied that United remain in the box seat. They still hold a three-point cushion over their neighbours and know victory would effectively secure glory, barring a collapse of Devon Loch proportions.
With the Premier League preparing to celebrate 20 seasons since its inception, there is a certain symmetry to the prospect of the team which has dominated the top-flight in recent years claiming a record 20th English title. The Red Devils always polarise opinion, but love them or hate them, you have to respect their enduring success under Ferguson.
But defeat for United, who will doubtless still be smarting from their 6-1 humbling at home in the reverse fixture, would leave them second in the table on goal difference and facing the prospect of having thrown away a position widely regarded as unassailable. Under a fortnight ago they were eight points clear as City stuttered badly, drawing with Stoke and Sunderland before losing to Arsenal, amid much debate over dressing room bust-ups and the distraction of Mario Balotelli's spotlight hogging antics.
At that point, odds of 1/40 were being offered by Sky Bet on the trophy remaining at Old Trafford, such was the improbability of Ferguson's side faltering having forged ahead. But this is why we love the Premier League as two utterly unpredictable results - a defeat at Wigan and Sunday's astonishing 4-4 draw at home to Everton - makes Monday night's showdown a genuine piece of appointment to view television.
Ferguson knows better than most how lifting your first Premier League title is the hardest hurdle to overcome, but the chances of him sharing any invaluable words of wisdom with his City counterpart would make as much sense as Balotelli fronting a firework safety campaign for the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service.
Mancini, of course, has title-winning experience from his time with Inter in Serie A and his recent public stance of writing off City's hopes at every possible juncture certainly looks to have paid dividends with his players rediscovering their freedom and verve in successive victories over West Brom, Norwich and Wolves, in which 12 goals have been scored and just one conceded.
Pressure is likely to be the greatest defining factor in this season's run-in, yet it remains impossible to quantify, although there has been evidence aplenty of the nerves and tension affecting players.
United's defence seemingly found their boots to be lined with lead on numerous occasions against Everton, while City - given the lead against Wolves when Gael Clichy's pass cut a perfect parabola through the home defence for Sergio Aguero to slot home - were visibly less fluent after the interval given their slender advantage before Samir Nasri settled the issue.
Three points for City on Monday evening puts them back in the box seat they occupied for so much of the season and if they can go on to clinch the crown it would confirm their fast-track progress to a position where they must be respected as a European heavyweight and makes it impossible for Ferguson to disparage and dismiss them as 'noisy neighbours'.
Just as with their rivals, there are critics lining up to condemn City, in their case for the staggering sums they have lavished on building a star-studded squad which is the envy of many in Europe, while others welcome the arrival of a fresh face on the scene to provide a genuine challenge at the summit and sweep aside the preconceived ideas of the Big Four. For the record, I fall into the latter camp.
Mancini has had to cope with more than his share of off-field distractions this term too, with Carlos Tevez, Balotelli and even Sergio Aguero leading the Italian into varying degrees of vexation. Yet the enforced absence of the suspended Balotelli in recent games has pushed prodigal son Tevez back into the starting XI, with his partnership with fellow Argentina international Aguero proving particularly prolific.
The constant contrition from Balotelli in the wake of his Emirates Stadium red card, which led to Mancini suggesting he could be sold in the summer, means he may be involved in Monday's derby duel. But it would be foolhardy to break up the blossoming Tevez-Aguero axis, particularly for a man who is often more concerned with what clever goal celebration message to write on his T-shirt rather than the act of putting the ball into the back of the net.
And for Tevez, Monday night's meeting with his former club represents the ideal opportunity to cement his standing back in the hearts of the supporters left disillusioned by his unprofessional actions which saw him spend a significant chunk of this season working on his golf swing in South America.
Ferguson's mantra, meanwhile, has been to regularly point to the experience his squad have in sewing up success at this stage of the season, a quality which cannot be underestimated. Yet the static nature of his back four against Everton on Sunday is an undoubted concern and a similar display against City's fluid forwards on Monday would spell disaster. Nemanja Vidic's season-ending knee injury could yet come back to haunt the Scot.
Attempting to cocoon their respective squads away from the hype and hyperbole which will dominate the headlines in the coming days is just one of the challenges that both Ferguson and Mancini must master, while simultaneously preparing for a pivotal contest that will draw in the eyes of the world.
To the victor the spoils.