There have been big weeks before in the "project" that is Manchester City under Roberto Mancini, and because this is City, predictability was never part of them. There was the critical period last February, when a dull goalless draw with Liverpool was followed by elimination from the FA Cup at Stoke and, three days later, a memorable 4-2 victory at Chelsea. That win prompted optimism about claiming a Champions' League place but when the two other claimants to it, Aston Villa and Tottenham, arrived at Eastlands in the space of five May days, only Villa were beaten and Spurs took the prize.
Almost a year on, it is the red brigades of Liverpool and Manchester United who lie in wait, at Anfield tomorrow night and then Wembley on Saturday. So the question to be answered is whether the great unpredictables can summon sufficient consistency for two huge results in the same week – knowing that never this season have they won against opposition of any great stature away from the home comforts of east Manchester.
The potential rewards should be incentive enough. Success against a weakened Liverpool, who had been brushed aside 3-0 in the second game of the season, would confirm third place in the Premier League and set up a run-in that could scarcely be less daunting; while to defeat United in the FA Cup semi-final would be regarded as Mancini's finest hour, not least for making his team clear favourites to win their first trophy since the League Cup of 1976.
At the Carrington training ground on Thursday, he used a metaphor from his native language to explain how the time is now right to seize the rewards for the season's hard work. "Now is the moment we take the fruit from the tree," the Italian said. "I'm tired, which after a year is normal when you work very hard, but now we have another 45 days to finish."
City approach the week in good heart, thanks in part to the enviable fortune of having had a fixture last weekend against Sunderland, one of the very few teams in the League who seemed to have decided they were sitting comfortably enough in mid-table not to exert themselves unduly. The outcome was a 5-0 home victory, equalling the largest winning margin of Mancini's tenure and confirming that with the right personnel in the right mood they can be a vibrant attacking force. It was significant that he started with both Carlos Tevez and the enigmatic Mario Balotelli, backed up by a line of three adventurous midfielders in Adam Johnson, Yaya Touré and David Silva. Only Nigel de Jong, rather than the more customary two holding players, was left to protect the back four and City looked all the better for it.
But that was against a Sunderland team "on a horrific run with a half-fit squad", according to their downcast manager Steve Bruce. Liverpool at Anfield and United anywhere are another matter. Tomorrow, City need to take ruthless advantage of the absence of Steven Gerrard, plus a clutch of defenders in Glen Johnson, Martin Kelly and Daniel Agger. Mancini, who took his squad out for a team-bonding meal at a favourite Italian restaurant, believes they are equipped to do so. It will not concern him if the game turns into one of City's dull draws but he cannot afford a dull defeat.
Similarly on Saturday at Wembley, where he once lost a European Cup final with Sampdoria against Barcelona, the result is all that matters for both teams. Mancini won his first Manchester derby, the home leg of last season's League Cup semi-final, but the 2-1 lead was overturned at Old Trafford and United are unbeaten in the three meetings since then.
"I think the gap now is very narrow," he claimed, based less perhaps on the League table than a narrow 2-1 defeat in the most recent derby, won by a spectacular overhead kick from Wayne Rooney, who will, of course, be missing on Saturday.
"The last game we played against United we were at the same level, and we deserved to win," Mancini claims. "They have a good mentality. But if we want to reach the same point we should continue to work because we have improved this year. I think we probably need more time but it's important that we start now to go into the Champions' League."
He will be looking for new employment if they do not.
United, as he acknowledges, have greater experience of big matches and of Wembley. Of City, he says: "The moment has arrived when we should start. All [our] players are experienced and they know that this is a good moment."
It would be a good moment certainly to prompt the possible withdrawal at last of that gloating message at Old Trafford that marks the number of years since City's last trophy. Such have been the two clubs' contrasting fortunes these past few decades that another equally painful banner was on show in the visitors' section at Stamford Bridge in midweek: "United and City. Joined geographically. Seperated [sic] by success."
Liverpool v Manchester City is on Sky Sports 1 tomorrow, kick-off 8pm. Manchester City v Manchester United is on ITV1 next Saturday, kick-off 5.15pmReuse content