When the Premier League's fixture computer did its work last June and came up with Manchester United at home to Manchester City in the first week of April, the game jumped out as one of singular significance. Like the derby at the opposite end of the month a year ago, when City's 1-0 victory turned the championship chase in their favour, it had the potential to be decisive.
From the start of the season, Roberto Mancini's strategy was to play down his own team's prospects, making United clear favourites to claim the title back – unlike the bookmakers – and in doing so prompting Sir Alex Ferguson to exclaim: "We're favourites every week according to him – I don't know if he realises he's got a decent team."
"Decent", however, was as good as it got for the champions, and even some eight weeks ago, when Sky Sports shifted the match to a Monday night meeting, just like last year, hope was diminishing that the outcome could be relevant to anything more than a little local pride. City have even been looking over their shoulder at Tottenham, who with a win at home to Everton today would be only two points behind (albeit from two games more).
So in the build-up both managers have spent much time looking beyond tomorrow, and even beyond the end of the season, given that they know where the trophy is heading this time. From Ferguson, an almost unthinkable 15 points to the good with only eight games to play, there was even talk of a potential championship hat-trick to equal those of 1999-2001 and 2007-2009.
"We're not going to go away," he said. "Whether we can go on another run of three titles in a row, who's to say? But the material is there."
By that he means that a gradual revamping of the squad, brilliantly augmented by adding Robin van Persie at the other end of the scale, has produced a young crop that should only improve to compensate for the ageing of Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Rio Ferdinand. "We'll have players who are maturing nicely – Rafael, the goalkeeper David De Gea, Shinji Kagawa, the boy Alex Buttner, Phil Jones, who can do anything he wants to do. So it's looking good.
"With the squad we've got, there are maybe 14 players aged 23 or under who could play together for another seven or eight years. The record over the last 20 years tells you we're not going away – so I would expect us to have a real good challenge next year too."
United, like the great Liverpool teams of the Seventies and Eighties, are not inclined to look back in triumph. When the time does come in a few more weeks, they are more likely to dwell on trophies that got away in the home defeat by Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid and the FA Cup loss to Chelsea. Neutrals, meanwhile, will point to those occasions as evidence that this is not one of the very best United teams, even if the manager can claim after a top-flight record 25 wins from 30 League games: "That's a fantastic performance."
For Mancini, the key factors are the 20 goals fewer that City have scored compared to the same stage last season, and the 20-odd years in which their rivals have never finished outside the top three, building up experience, a winning mentality and financial resources. The latter is a familiar theme but one that bears repetition.
"We are not like United. They have a big history and we need a lot of years to compete with this," Mancini said. "We need to improve our team every year, and in the summer we need to buy the players who can make the difference. I don't know how much money we can spend, but United in the past did spend a lot of money to buy important players."
A question remains about whether Mancini will still be the man recommending who is bought. The feeling at present seems to be that he will survive, but bad results tomorrow and in the FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea next Sunday could change that at the end of the campaign.
The League title has gone and a confirmatory handshake across the Manchester divide will come sooner or later: "If they beat us [tomorrow], yes I will congratulate him," Mancini said of his opposite number. "If not, I will do it when they win the title."
Man United v Man City is on Sky Sports 1 tomorrow, kick-off 8pmReuse content