Manchester United's loss to their chief rivals Manchester City in the latest and most important derby since 1968 could prove to be one of the most seminal moments in football history for a number of reasons.
It proves that City have overtaken United, that United's midfield is their worst in decades and that this loss could signal the beginning of the end for the legend that is Sir Alex Ferguson.
With two games to go, Manchester City sits on top of the Premier League on goal difference, just ahead of United. The league is still on, and either side could still win the title when the fixtures for each team are analysed.
Next, City travel to the Sports Direct Arena—St. James' Park to you and me—to take on Newcastle, with the Magpies still chasing a potential place in the Champions League. Then City finish out the season with what could be an incendiary match against relegation-threatened QPR and their boss, ex-City manager Mark Hughes.
For the Red Devils’ last two games, they welcome Brendan Rogers' high flying Swansea to Old Trafford before ending the season with a tough trek to Martin O'Neill's Sunderland up north. Both teams are led by managers who, many agree, will step up to take the next big job in the Premier League when it comes up. Thus, reputations are on the line as well as points.
In short, and despite Manchester City being red-hot favourites to win their first league title since 1968, the league will go right down to the wire.
The fact that the league will end so closely, and could realistically still go either way, should not take away from the fact that City are now in ascendancy and that Manchester United are now officially in decline.
To demonstrate this point further, you only have to compare the two midfields on show in the Derby and then ask why Sir Alex Ferguson chose to go with that particular setup.
For a start, since Roberto Mancini banished Mario Balotelli and Edin Dzeko to the sidelines, albeit thanks to the Italian's red card and subsequent suspension, he has been forced to choose his best team and his best team only.
Sergio Aguero has been joined in attack by Carlos Tevez, who drops deep to join David Silva and Samir Nasri in the attacking third of the pitch. The walking wardrobe that is Yaya Toure controls central midfield with Gareth Barry, and from there the defence basically picks itself, injuries permitting.
Knowing that Mancini's first XI was not going to change is what forced Sir Alex Ferguson to change his philosophy, for once.
The Manchester United boss is well known for always picking teams that play to win. However, against City, fear took over, and he picked a team that played not to lose.
Ferguson was afraid of the physical problems that Yaya Toure would give his "lightweight" team, and he tried to combat this by shoring up central midfield and foregoing the attacking threat his team always carries.
Park Ji-Sung, a player who has only started nine Premier League games all season, with the last one of those coming on January 31 in a 2-0 win over Stoke City, was parachuted into the team at the expense of Danny Welbeck.
With defence firmly in mind, Sir Alex Ferguson unknowingly isolated one truly great player and only real attacking threat in his first XI—Wayne Rooney.
Ferguson made more cardinal errors when he chose to leave Antonio Valencia out of the starting lineup. Since returning to the first team on December 3 after a number of injuries, the Ecuadorian midfielder has waded in with four goals and 14 assists, and he has been instrumental in the Red Devils' charge for the title. He is without doubt one of the form players in the Premier League at the moment.
Instead, Sir Alex Ferguson chose to go with Ryan Giggs on the left and Luis Nani on the right, with neither player making much contribution. Giggs’ legs have gone at this level, and he is really only good for 50 minutes of high intensity football, while Nani is a player that relies heavily on instinct and confidence. If the going gets tough on either player, you can rule them as having a potential influence on the game.
This selection left United with a static and lightweight midfield that offered no attacking threat whatsoever across the 90.
In football as in war, attack is often the best form of defence, and the United boss would have been better served by picking his best available XI.
Hindsight, of course, is always 20/20, but not only did Sir Alex Ferguson second guess himself and render his attacking threat null and void, but United did not manage one single shot on target all night. He played right into City's hands and handed them all the impetus they needed to win the game.
By making these changes to central midfield, in the biggest game of the season, Sir Alex Ferguson basically admitted that Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick are finished at the very highest level.
Ferguson should have chosen Valencia and Nani out wide, with perhaps Giggs starting for the Portuguese on the left. Danny Welbeck could have started as centre forward, with Wayne Rooney providing the link between midfield and attack as he dropped deep to help combat City’s obvious advantage.
Despite Scholes' and Carrick's influence of the game in central midfield being below what is required at the highest level, the duo are without doubt the best players in this position that Ferguson has at his disposal, and as a result, they should be automatic choices for the Scot.
The problem that Ferguson faced was that when his team last faced City at Old Trafford in October, his team were destroyed 6-1.
Then, as now, the game was won and lost in central midfield.
The way United were dominated in both games through midfield will not be lost on the Scot, and he will have suffered sleepless nights as to what both games signify for the future of Manchester United and the English Premier League.
Put it this way, the Premier League’s website is currently running a team selection page where fans can vote for their best team of the last 20 years. Most fans would have three of the four midfield berths filled with United players of yesteryear, Ryan Giggs included.
Not one player in the current setup would even make it onto the short list on current ability, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes included.
Holding back Manchester City's onslaught on the Premier League since Sheikh Mansour decided to invest over £1 billion after buying the club in 2008 has been like trying to hold back an avalanche with a handkerchief.
If the Citizens do not win the title this year, they will win it next season or the year after.
The problem now facing Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson is that if they fail to stop the inevitable this season, where do they go from here? You can almost hear the echoes of the questions in the Manchester United boardroom if you listen hard enough.
When will Sir Alex retire?
Is it worth investing heavily now if he goes next year or the year after?
Who will replace him?
Is it worth approaching Pep Guardiola to let him know there is a job waiting for him if he wants it?
Would Ferguson be willing to go if Guardiola was offered the job in a year or two?
This leaves the club facing a conundrum of huge proportions as far as winning trophies, debt and the price of the club is concerned, because if Manchester City wins the league this season, Manchester United and the rest of the EPL are at a crossroads.
United, to their credit, always try to win the league every year. The same can be said of Chelsea. The same, however, cannot be said of Arsenal, Spurs or Liverpool whose main objective, every season, is to finish in the top four and qualify for the Champions League.
City now want to win the title badly and they also want to "knock the Reds off their f****** perch" to quote Ferguson, so they will be trying to win the title every year. To do that, they will invest heavily.
If and when they win the title and become regulars in the Champions League and regular contenders for “the trophy with big ears,” they will not only have the ability to pay for the best players in the world, but also they will have the status to attract the best players in the world—Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo included.
Sir Alex Ferguson faces his greatest battle in trying to hold Manchester City off the top spot in the Premier League.
Unfortunately, it is a war he can't win, and because of that, he may face retiring on his club's terms rather than his own.
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