You do not have to do much scrabbling around in the archives to identify highlights in Sir Alex Ferguson's 26 years in charge of Manchester United. You do not even have to be a United supporter to recall at least a handful -- it is a bulky fistful, too, including two Champions League final victories, one of them a bona-fide competition and club-defining classic. So there is more than a little mischief in Ferguson's insistence, this week, that beating Manchester City in Sunday's derby would be "one of our best ever results." The game would have to be a real and riotous humdinger just to secure a place in the top 20.
That is not to say that the match will not be significant, of course. With a third of the season gone, the Manchester clubs are already pulling away in the race for the Premier League title. Even if third-placed Chelsea and fourth-placed Tottenham Hotspur were both to win this weekend, they would each be on 29 points; City and United already sit on 33 and 36, respectively. There remains a strong scent of fallibility around the leaders, but matches played between these two have certainly acquired new dimensions.
"The derby, with the money City have spent and the quality they have brought in, has got bigger and bigger," United midfielder Ryan Giggs said. "The two games against them were the difference last season."
In October of last season, City left Old Trafford having won 6-1, United undone by attempts to recover from going 3-1 and a man down, each attacking foray an invitation to City's forwards. Roberto Mancini's side drew level on points thanks to the win and took top spot thanks to a plus-eight goal difference. Come April, with United again three points ahead as they met the neighbors, Ferguson was more cautious: Wayne Rooney played alone in front of a stodgy Champions-League-away-day midfield.
"United had to make do with demonstrating good order while the ball spent much of the occasion at City feet" said the
United did not have a shot on target the last time it visited Etihad Stadium, where City has not lost in almost two years. This time, Ferguson has Robin van Persie up front, United's leading scorer with 13 goals and fresh after sitting out the Champions League match against Cluj this week. He can position Rooney -- given the Cluj game to sharpen up -- in a deeper role, a more artful way of filling the area of the pitch that the likes of Yaya Toure will look to dominate. Mancini may have to wait until Sunday to see if David Silva (hamstring) is fit enough to add to the mix, but it is Ferguson who has the greater injury concerns there: Anderson, Antonio Valencia and Nani are all set to miss the game, and there are doubts over Tom Cleverley and Shinji Kagawa. City has not been imperious, but it has yet to be beaten in the Premier League: few managers would relish visiting while shorn of width and oomph.
Both teams were beaten in the Champions League this week, Mancini ruing his side's inability to convert chances while Ferguson continued to fret about United's defensive frailties. For City, Edin Dzeko, Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero gave Borussia Dortmund goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller relatively comfortable saves to make. There was little that the United back line could do about Luis Alberto's winner for Cluj, but overall the second string looked as uncomfortable with high balls into the box as the first team has done. Had Cluj been as accurate with its heads as Reading was last weekend, the defeat would have been heavier. This derby could be the meeting of a stoppable force and a movable object.
"With so much at stake I wonder if there will be a bit of caution from both clubs," Ferguson wrote in his program notes Wednesday. "There may well be an element of playing safe."
United would take a draw, and while City will surely want to play for the win, it will be wary of its opponent's counterattacking ability and the possibility of going six points behind. Each of the last six league meetings at City's ground has brought one or fewer goals. It is tempting to imagine something akin to City's 0-0 draw with Chelsea, where neither side really wanted responsibility for driving things. Ferguson raised the possibility of the teams being coerced by the crowd "into a gung-ho mood" and producing "a masterclass of attacking football." If this fixture is suddenly to see a flurry of goals, a masterclass in how not to defend seems just as likely.
At Chelsea, a banner implores Roman Abramovich: "Bring back the Special One," while in the posh seats, Didier Drogba tries not to show a flicker of recognition at the calls for his return. Even the appointment of Rafael Benitez as interim manager seems to be more about revisiting Fernando Torres' best days than anything else. ... Meanwhile there have been reports suggesting that Thierry Henry is to resign for a third time with Arsenal, on loan from the New York Red Bulls. If the move is confirmed he could make several more appearances at the Emirates, where a statue in his image stands. There are those who argue that Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes are already living statues at Manchester United. Soccer is nothing without nostalgia (as the song says, it's all about knowing yer 'istory, after all), but it is worrying to see fans and managers alike dabbling in a spot of time travel. If Arsene Wenger really believed his team would benefit from a few Henry cameos, it would be as damning an indictment of the state of things as we are likely to find. Once Henry returned to New York, the real world -- the real Arsenal squad -- would still be waiting for Wenger's next move. Should we be concerned that such prominent clubs hesitate to look the future in the eye?