With a thumping 4-0 win over West Brom, City kept alive their hopes of a first title triumph since 1968, despite Roberto Mancini’s strange defiance that United will still win the league because Sir Alex Ferguson’s men have a better team spirit than their rivals.
Over at the DW Stadium, United were having a wobble of their own, their procession to a 20th top flight title made a little less of a formality as they fell to a 1-0 defeat against Wigan.
By the time United kick-off against Aston Villa on Sunday, they could be just two points ahead of City, who face Norwich on Saturday lunchtime. All eyes are now back on that April 30 date when both Manchester heavyweights will collide at Etihad Stadium in a potential title decider.
In his programme notes, Mancini made a point of a title victory with Inter when the Italian giants were five points behind with five games to play. That is exactly the situation he now finds himself in. Forget the miserable attempt at mind games, he still believes. The supporters at the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday night certainly do.
Mancini is clearly attempting to take the pressure off a group of players who have stumbled so alarmingly in the last month, throwing away a three-point lead in a table they headed for the first 28 games of the season.
Despite City’s blip, were United to lose the Manchester derby they simply would not be able to afford another “off-night you sometimes get in football” the phrase Ferguson employed to sum up his side’s first ever defeat at the hands of Wigan.
The United boss has been through this before and seen his side stutter over the line. But even he will have been shocked by the performance at the DW Stadium –– his charges were comfortably second best.
Nevertheless, United remain favourites to win the title, a victory that would represent an astonishing achievement for Ferguson if he manages to guide this relatively average and deeply flawed squad to a second successive title.
Yes, the title race is back on (despite some bookmakers already paying out on United) and it is very exciting, but the level of the elite clubs in the top flight has irrefutably dipped, despite what their enormous points hauls would suggest.
The quality of the Premier League has declined markedly in recent years, highlighted by the poor performances of English clubs in European competition. Chelsea remain in the Champions League thanks to favourable draws but are likely to be put in their place by a rampant Barcelona next week.
Neither of the Manchester sides could hold a candle to the “classic” title winners of recent times, they are not a patch on Arsenal’s Invincibles or Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea; let alone the great United teams of 1999 and the Ronaldo-inspired conquerors of Europe in 2008.
It says everything you need to know that United so badly missed the rested Paul Scholes on Wednesday night, a man who was retired for the first half of the campaign. The 37-year-old has been imperious since January but has he ever been so important in all his years at the club?
In 1999, if there was no Scholes, any one of Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham or Andy Cole would step up; in 2008 United boasted a fearsome front three of Carlos Tevez, Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney.
City, for their part, have largely been functional throughout the campaign, particularly away from home, pragmatically carving victories on the road with the odd thunderous attacking display thrown in. Mancini accepts his project at the Etihad Stadium remains a work in progress, believing he needs two more players to win the title next year.
But his City side, inspired by the Argentine duo of Sergio Aguero and Tevez, could yet win it this season. How they must be kicking themselves for their performances in tame draws against Stoke and Sunderland, not to mention the insipid display in defeat at Arsenal last Sunday.
It is not over. We are back in squeaky bum territory where anything can happen. –– Goal.