There are two principal sporting events in Manchester over the next two days. Today some 8,000 runners will take part in the Greater Manchester Marathon. Tomorrow night, the marathon that is the Premier League chase becomes an extended sprint between the city's two great football clubs.
The race so far has been in distinct phases. Both started well, United in front by a nose even though Sir Alex Ferguson claims they had the harder fixtures. "City did well in their early-season programme but weren't playing anyone," he said dismissively this weekend. "We had Arsenal [beaten 8-2], Chelsea [3-1] and Tottenham [3-0] in the first four or five games. They had a good start to the season and that projected them forward. But I expected them to be there."
He was not disappointed in that, but was appalled when City dealt out "the worst result in my history" by six goals to one at Old Trafford. That made the gap five points, at which stage Ferguson's stated intention was merely to be in contention come the turn of the year. They were, and would have regained the lead but for one of the shock results of the season, when Blackburn Rovers beat them at home3-2. Along with the City result, that crazy afternoon illustrated United's weak point, namely the occasional fallibility of a defence from which the new captain Nemanja Vidic would be missing from early December onwards.
Jonny Evans has answered questions about his reliability but a team capable of putting together a run of clean sheets has just as often ended one with a jolt, conceding three times at home to Basle, Blackburn and Athletic Bilbao, six against City and three in the new year at Newcastle and Chelsea. Those are encouraging figures for City to take into tomorrow's head-to-head. Ferguson's experience nevertheless told him that if his team could hang in there, their rivals would suffer a blip, which they did twice, briefly lagging eight points behind.
Everton's two late goals last Sunday offered new hope to City by further exposing United's defence, causing even Ferguson to admit that losing today could cost his side the title. Invited to confront the possibility of defeat, he conceded: "I think they probably would win it. They would have a great chance." With a draw on the other hand: "We'd be strong favourites. It must be in our favour then, with two games to go. We would be happy with that. But we're going there trying to win."
That, to be fair, has generally been United's way. Away from home, their pace on the counter-attack is particularly effective and has contributed to by far the best record on the road in the Premier League this season – 12 wins to City's eight. It is at the Etihad, however, that City have made up the points, with Sunderland the only side to stop them, in the eventful 3-3 draw a month ago.
In the past few encounters, the home side have found it difficult: United torn apart after losing Darren Fletcher in that 6-1 humiliation, but racing into a 3-0 lead in the FA Cup tie on enemy territory after City had Vincent Kompany controversially sent off. Ferguson believes an early goal either way tomorrow could open up the game. If one does not materialise, there must be a chance of a stalemate like the goalless draw on the same ground last season, which would suit United, but this time the sheer weight of importance would at least ensure continuing tension.
If there is a single key to the outcome, it must lie in the ability of that unpredictable United defence to hold off the combined talents of Sergio Aguero and a newly committed Carlos Tevez, even though Roberto Mancini insists he is "still not 100 per cent" after their long stand-off. Evans is reported to have been carrying an injury and Rafael da Silva must fear for his place at right-back, but neither Phil Jones nor Chris Smalling, the potential replacements, has been convincing in recent weeks.
Mancini must decide whether bringing back the maverick Mario Balotelli would disrupt the rhythm City have found in scoring 14 goals during his three-match suspension – nine of them shared by the two Argentinians. It seems an unnecessary risk. More taxing is whether to have all three of Nigel de Jong, Gareth Barry and Yaya Touré behind them in a match they must win. "It is impossible for Tevez to be 100 per cent after six months without playing," the manager said. "It was a strange situation six months ago. I asked him many times to apologise. But Tevez is Tevez, a top striker." And, of course, a former United one who would love to put one over them.
Taking the longer view, Mancini, whose immediate future is believed to be secure, insists that City have progressed this season and will continue to do so. "We should be proud," he said. "We have 80 points with three games to play. We have 22 points more than Chelsea, who are in the Champions' League final, 15 points more than Arsenal and 34 points more than Liverpool. We started to change the history of this club."
With the wisdom of the years, United's history man Ferguson said of the title race: "It always comes down to two." The London sides have wasted their opportunities and Merseyside never featured. Now Manchester decides.
Manchester City v Manchester United is on Sky Sports 1 tomorrow, kick-off 8pm
Summer dreaming: Lescott looks beyond title to an England call-up
Manchester City's central defender Joleon Lescott admits to being concerned about his prospects of going to the European Championship this summer and is hoping that keeping Wayne Rooney and Co at bay tomorrow night would enhance his chances. Rooney and Danny Welbeck would be England's likely starting strikers if the former was not banned from the first two games in Ukraine and ending the pair's run of six goals in the last two games could go a long way to making City champions.
"I'm quite worried," Lescott admitted. "I missed out on the last squad so I hope I can finish the season strongly and force my way into it. I know for the last few months before the last World Cup I was injured and I didn't go. I was disappointed then so for me to play so consistently this season and with my last England game being a good performance against the world's best team [Spain] I'd be very disappointed not to go."
Although City's attacking players received the plaudits in the 6-1 win at Old Trafford, Lescott believes that the defence was an important part of the success and that Vincent Kompany's red card in the FA Cup tie against United was what undermined them: "Vinny has been immense for a couple of years now, and is probably the best centre-half in the League. I think we complement each other quite well. And Joe Hart is the best goalkeeper in the world."