A city disunited for heavyweights' title fight
Danger man … City's Carlos Tevez. Photo: Getty Images
In the first Manchester derby, with the clubs in nascent form back in 1881, Newton Heath were helped on their way to victory when the ball ''was put through the West Gorton goal by one of their own backs'', according to the Ashton Reporter.
Manchester City's capacity for own goals on and off the pitch, for grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory, was famously noted by Franny Lee with his pithy observation that, ''If there was a cup for cock-ups, City would win it.'' Yet what Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan's money and Roberto Mancini's management have done is maximise the possibility of cups and reduce the likelihood of cock-ups.
City leave less to chance now on and off the pitch. They make fewer mistakes. There will still be the gaskets blown, such as Carlos Tevez's unscheduled golfing break and Mario Balotelli's assorted indiscretions with fireworks and fouls, all off these cock-ups with attitude, but City are a slicker, smoother operation. A bit more like Manchester United. The best compliment paid to City comes in the changed tone of United's manager, Alex Ferguson, when discussing them. When City put up their infamous Tevez ''Welcome to Manchester'' poster, a dig at the fact that United reside in Trafford, Ferguson described them witheringly as ''a small club with a small mentality''.
Influence ... Paul Scholes has been instrumental for the Red Devils since coming out of retirement. Photo: Getty Images
On the eve of this derby, Ferguson spoke respectfully of how City have gone out and bought ''the best and most experienced players''. He was not lobbing a barb across the neighbours' fence about their spending, but complimenting the quality of Mancini's squad, acknowledging the danger they pose.
What also needs noting in the construction of the new City is that the dressing-room is filled with good people, as well as good players. Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Joleon Lescott, James Milner, Gareth Barry, David Silva and Sergio Aguero, among others, present the club in an excellent light on and off the pitch. Reliable is a word that has crept into the City lexicon.
There is a unity among Mancini's players seen in recent performances, in the way they supported each other last weekend at the Professional Footballers' Association awards dinner. If they can ease Tevez and Balotelli out the door this summer, building around more solid characters, the new City will continue to take impressive shape.
Controversial ... Mario Balotelli could figure in the Manchester derby. Photo: Getty Images
When the money from Abu Dhabi began flooding in to Eastlands, the club was encouraged to build slowly, to go for evolution rather than revolution. They made mistakes, classic old-school City cock-ups such as the cack-handed pursuit of Kaka but now seem in incredibly capable hands from boardroom to dugout.
Their plans for the new Etihad Campus are stunning, also helping regenerate a deprived area. All that Arab petrol money is being invested wisely. Somehow, the club with all the cash is not behaving like a lottery winner, with little crassness or arrogance. City's rise is reflected in a prominence in cup competitions, winning the FA Cup last year, but the title is another step up, another test of their calibre and ambition. What could prove a ''league decider'' tomorrow, according to Ferguson, showed City's ''great progress''. More praise.
Their credibility will be enhanced with a title. They have to vanquish United and then guard against the fate that would have befallen the old City, beating United and then slipping up in their next game, throwing it all away. City face Newcastle United next weekend, and that will be no jolly day out at the Blaydon Races. Alan Pardew has made St James' Park imposing again.
City have to defeat Manchester United first in the king of all derbies, a game being depicted as the most seismic local tear-up in the history of English football. Everton and Liverpool duelled in the mid-'80s. London clubs exchanged blows occasionally down the years in the heavyweight category. Rarely with as much at stake as this. This is neighbours at war, fighting for the right to be regional and national champions as the world watches. Never before have so many overseas broadcasters flocked to an English game (16 compared with nine at the last El Clasico). Tomorrow is Babel in boots, the ultimate world game: Arabs versus Americans in the boardroom, Italian against Scot in the dugout, and all before a playing troupe drawn from Argentina to the Ivory Coast, England to Ecuador.
City are favourites, boast more players in form, have Tevez on a mission, yet United possess resilience in their DNA.
Ferguson's defence must show far more organisation and concentration than against Everton last weekend. Mancini will have watched that DVD, noting United's vulnerability to clever movement. Aguero, and especially Tevez, will be poised.
This is the most important game of Rio Ferdinand's season; he has to marshal that back line well. Patrice Evra's positioning has been poor, while Jonny Evans still has a mistake in him. Ferguson will surely not risk starting Rafael da Silva following the Brazilian's chastening experience against Everton. Chris Smalling offers a better option at right-back. His greater physical presence also important at defending corners against the power of Yaya Toure, Kompany and Lescott.
In midfield, Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick will need to sit deeper at times, filling the space into which Tevez likes to drop. Central midfield presents Ferguson with a real conundrum. It is in the Scot's nature to field wingers, and he can select from Antonio Valencia, Nani and Ashley Young. Yet City are so powerful in the centre that Carrick and Scholes could be outgunned.
Ferguson could start Wayne Rooney on the left of a five-man midfield, omit a winger, deploy Ryan Giggs with Danny Welbeck as the lone striker. That would signal caution and would break up the hugely promising Welbeck-Rooney axis. Some have suggested that Ferguson should play Rooney up top, keeping Welbeck in reserve. Nonsense. Welbeck deserves to start; he is playing well and scoring. As a local lad, Welbeck knows how much the derby matters. He'll be up for it. Ferguson should be true to his instincts: be bold. The expectation is that he will go for the jugular, starting 4-4-2 with Rooney dropping into midfield when City have the ball.
For all City's strengths, a personal view is that United will survive. Even if City fail to win, the old uncertainties should not come racing back. The Blue Moon is rising and the title will come. Keep calm and carry on building.