James Lawton: Alex Ferguson's Manchester United will come out fighting against the fear that Manchester City are superior
He has to fight and rage against the possibility that after so many years his number is up
If ever a night was made for Sir Alex Ferguson, and the peculiar force which has shaped his astonishing reign at Old Trafford, it is surely the one due to unfold at the Etihad Stadium tonight.
Pushed into a corner by recent failures of nerve, and some basic defensive technique, facing a team which, man for man, has to be pronounced the more talented, Ferguson must do what he has always done best.
He has to fight and rage against the possibility that after so many years at the top, finally, his number is up.
Some things, though, we can take utterly for granted. Ferguson's instinct to battle, to be aggressive in a way that his rival tonight, Roberto Mancini, sometimes still tends to embrace as tentatively as if he is taking charge of a Molotov cocktail, will be as rampant as ever.
When someone like Nani – who despite his natural-born brilliance can so easily disappear beyond the bounds of relevance – steps forward as one voice of conscience in the dressing room, you can guess the intensity of Ferguson's beseeching these last few days.
It is an old Ferguson device, the transplanted voice of indignation in the face of failure, and in an earlier crisis this season it was heard on the lips of Ryan Giggs. The Welshman stepped forward to say he had never seen such a lax attitude in all his days at Old Trafford.
Ferguson will no doubt encourage such calls to arms right up to tonight's kick-off – but does he any longer have the means to dispute a wider view of football reality? Will the look that first appeared on his face at Wembley last spring, when it became clear that Barcelona were operating on a distinctly higher level, return tonight?
He has to hope that he can impose his own certainties on the fear that in such as Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez and David Silva, City have too much superior quality.
He achieved such a feat most memorably at the Nou Camp 13 years ago when, minus Roy Keane and Paul Scholes, he won his first Champions League title – and an historic treble – after being substantially outplayed by Bayern Munich in the final.
Ferguson didn't make too bad a stab at the same trick in the first days of this year when, after being required to drop, fine and read out the riot act to his best player, Wayne Rooney, he went to the Etihad and conjured from his men the dramatic statement that the shift of power to Manchester City was maybe not complete.
That had been the powerful sense created by City's 6-1 eruption at Old Trafford and the evidence that with the help of Aguero, manager Roberto Mancini had moved his team on to a new dimension.
But then Rooney scored a stupendous goal – and kissed the badge like a man reborn, an intimation which through most subsequent games has looked substantially true – and City were separated from the FA Cup in their first defence.
Tonight we return to that burning question of whether Ferguson can pull off another title win despite the prevailing opinion that under the most rigorous examination his team is no longer truly fit for such a purpose?
His most fervent supporters will no doubt draw most encouragement from the belief that in any one-off situation, when a crucial factor is the motivation and unity of a team, he remains an opponent of the most daunting resilience – and authority.
While Mancini submitted to the pragmatic view that however flawed the professional character of Carlos Tevez, he was still a player of world-class ability – and that Mario Balotelli could break a thousand rules and still remain a potent asset – Ferguson has stood nose-to-nose with his most gifted player and demanded, successfully, a new level of discipline and consistent performance.
After one mind-numbing professional lapse by Balotelli, Mancini said that he could no longer trust his eccentric protégé – as he also said that Tevez would never play for him again. This week, though, the City manager suggested that trust could be recreated if the need was sufficiently great, as it may well be tonight.
This represents a degree of compromise that has rarely been part of Ferguson's modus operandi and is maybe another reason why some still believe that when a season of huge significance reaches a potential breaking point tonight it will be his team which shows the stronger competitive force.
It is a theory sharply disputed by the bookmakers who have installed City as 6-5 favourites (and United at 11-5) and much of the professional opinion consulted yesterday. The consensus is strong for City. It says that however tentatively Mancini has arrived at his position of strength, it is one that is totally indisputable now.
Yes, Rooney may again unearth flashes of irresistible force and invention – as he did so memorably against City at Old Trafford last season – and United may even drum up some competence in the rudiments of defence.
But then you consider the weight of City, the sheer quality of both Aguero's ability and his spirit, Tevez's capacity to concentrate his thoughts on something no more morally complex than finding a way to goal and the influence that can be wielded so powerfully by Yaya Touré in midfield.
This is a formidable accumulation of force by any standards and it makes City's status as favourites entirely just. However, they may want to note they still have one problem. It is in convincing the man who may be down but is not yet beaten. He has, of course, always been the last to know.
Game on: Three classic league deciders
Liverpool 0-2 Arsenal
Anfield, 26 May 1989
Arguably the most dramatic conclusion there has ever been to a title race. George Graham's Gunners went to leaders Liverpool for the final game three points behind and needing to win by two goals to claim the title. Alan Smith gave the away side the lead shortly after half-time but they looked set to come up painfully short until midfielder Michael Thomas, who would later sign for Liverpool, ran through on goal in the 91st minute and finished unerringly past Bruce Grobbelaar to win the league for Arsenal in stunning fashion.
Newcastle 0-1 Man United
St James' Park, 4 March 1996
Kevin Keegan's Newcastle had been 12 points clear of Manchester United in January, but Sir Alex Ferguson's side soon clawed back the deficit. Peter Schmeichel performed admirably in goal in this crucial game as Newcastle created a host of chances, but at the other end Eric Cantona scored a sweetly struck volley to swing the momentum in his team's favour. Two weeks later United went top of the table, and ended up winning the league by four points.
Man United 0-1 Arsenal
Old Trafford, 14 March 1998
United held the advantage in the league table heading into this fixture, leading Arsenal by six points. But the Gunners, in their first full season with Arsène Wenger as manager, were within range thanks to an unbeaten run of nine league games and having three games in hand. The rapid Dutch winger Marc Overmars scored the only goal of the game in the 79th-minute after slotting through the legs of Schmeichel. Wenger's side went on to claim their first Premier League title.
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