Derbies are emotive occasions at the best of times. Rational thought is obscured by a mélange of nerves, tension and anxiety. A concoction of fear and hope intertwine amongst bursts of dread. It's certainly not enjoyable but this one supersedes any other. It is the Manchester derby. And the Premier League title is on the line.
If that all seems a touch melodramatic, then it does well to reflect the overhyped build-up to Monday night's explosive encounter. From the moment Steven Pienaar equalised for Everton in the dying minutes against Manchester United, it was set up perfectly for this moment. All the Blues had to do was face a dispirited Wolves side on the verge of relegation, record a win and then the match everyone had been waiting for would be upon us.
And City did just that. It was nervy, it was scrappy but ultimately it was good enough and a 2-0 success closed the gap at the top to just three points. Less than a month ago, in the aftermath of defeat away to Arsenal, there was virtually no hope. The difference was eight points and there was barely a City supporter who would have been brave enough to retain optimism.
That's not to say second place would have necessarily been a disaster. Disappointing, yes, having led the table for so long and played some exquisite football, but an improvement on last season and with perspective in hand, the feeling of deflation may not have been so strong.
But now we have another chance.
Heading into the derby, we have belief, momentum and confidence: three vital elements that can make all the difference in what I expect to be a scrappy, edgy and viciously tense affair. Many are expecting a classic as the two best sides in the league meet, but with such importance now placed upon this fixture, I can't help but feel it may disappoint.
Naturally, much will depend on the way in which both sides are set out and focusing on City, I'd say that nine of the 11 pick themselves, with only the rightback slot and an attacking midfield role up for grabs. Pablo Zabaleta and Micah Richards are both worthy contenders for a place in defence, with the England international an option having recovered from a hamstring injury that prevented him taking part against Wolves. He would be the more attacking choice, someone whose pace and power down the right has been a useful outlet throughout the season and he usually raises his level of performance in a derby. Zabaleta is superior defensively, reads the play better and has an improved positional awareness, but with the fixture taking place at the Etihad Stadium, I expect Richards to be named in the side.
The other position up in the air, as touched on above, is Samir Nasri's role. He's currently operating as one of four attacking options along with Silva, Tévez and Agüero, but he is the only member of that quartet who is not guaranteed a start. Nasri has, without doubt, improved over the course of the season having struggled to adapt to a new club, but still lacks a consistent impact over 90 minutes for my liking. He has a wonderful trait of scoring important goals, whether that be the opener against Spurs, the late winner at home to Chelsea or the second at Wolves to calm our nerves, but seems to shirk responsibility at times and could miss out.
James Milner is one alternative to replace the Frenchman, his greater work ethic and defensive ability useful in a game of such significance. He featured in the 6-1 at Old Trafford and was a challenger for man of the match, such was the level of his performance, with his ability to drift between the lines and yet seemingly still cover vast areas remarkable. I'd be tempted to deploy Milner on City's left in order to provide some protection to Gael Clichy who will be faced by the considerable threat of the in-form Antonio Valencia. Whilst many will no doubt point to Wayne Rooney as the key to break our defence, the Ecuadorian's battle with Clichy will be an intriguing battle and one which could prove decisive.
The final option for a midfield role, Nigel De Jong, is, on the face of it, a slightly more defensive option though it could actually result in City having a greater attacking threat. The Dutchman's presence alongside the criminally underrated Gareth Barry would strengthen the midfield, adding a solid look and limiting the supply route into Rooney, but it would also have the equal measure of enabling Yaya Touré to operate from a more advanced role.
The Ivorian has an added influence when employed just behind the strikers, his sheer physical presence scaring the life out of opposition defenders. Taking the FA Cup semi-final last season as an example, it was from a position between midfield and attack where Yaya pounced upon a Michael Carrick pass and then burst past the helpless Nemanja Vidic. His strength and touch can be a valuable asset, but are a touch nullified from deep so De Jong's presence would free up the Ivorian to cause havoc.
What I know for certain is that I haven't a clue what Mancini is likely to do. His team selections are enormously tough to predict, fond as he is of springing a surprise a two so we will have to wait until Monday to find out which eleven players have the opportunity to make themselves heroes. This is, after all, the most important game in the history of football.
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