English soccer’s Premier League has none of the playoffs or finals common in American sports: A team wins the title by finishing the regular league season with the most points, or the lead on goal-difference (total goals scored minus total goals conceded) if point tallies are equal (and if that’s the same, it goes down to goals scored) — it can be won in an epic battle against the closest rivals, as in Arsenal’s storied 2-0 win at Liverpool in the last game of the ’88-’89 season to snatch the title in a match they had to win by two clear goals (a tale immortalized in Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch). Or it can be secured in a forgettable goalless draw at home to relegations battlers such as Aston Villa or Bolton. This year, however, the fates have conspired to create a de facto final every bit as dramatic as the ’89 decider, when Manchester United’s team bus makes the short ride across town to play at rivals Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium on Monday night. (Viewers in the U.S. can join the expected live global TV audience of around 400 million for the match on ESPN, coverage starting at 2.30pm EST.)
United are currently three points ahead of City at the top of the table, meaning a win for City would put them level. But City’s goal difference is 60, while United’s is just 54 — a differential largely resulting from City’s shocking 6-1 victory at United’s Old Trafford stadium earlier in the season (no away side had scored six goals at Old Trafford since 1930). That’s why a win for the boys in blue will likely decide the season in their favor if both teams win their remaining two games.
United fans are unaccustomed to seeing any visiting team win at Old Trafford, much less humiliate the home side in the fashion that City did. And they’re certainly unaccustomed to treating their local derby rivals, for decades one of the Cinderella teams of the English Premiership (whose long-suffering fans include the Gallagher brothers once of Oasis fame) as peer competitors. It’s amazing just how much a billion dollars can change.
The local passions that fuel derby rivalries may be an integral part of the chemistry that makes English football such an appealing global TV spectacle, but both Manchester clubs, today, are owned by moguls many thousands of miles away. United was acquired by the Florida-based Glazer family, owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in 2005; City was bought (from former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra) by Sheikh Mansour bin-Zayed al-Nahyan, a member of the royal family of the oil emirate of Abu Dhabi, in 2008. But theirs is a tale of two competing ownership models. Watch the game and you’ll see thousands of United supporters sporting scarves and hats in yellow-and-green, rather than the club’s traditional red-and-white regalia: That’s an act of protest by the fans against the American owners, who borrowed most of the money they used to acquire the club against United’s own assets, loading it with a debt that sucks $180 million a year in interest payments out of the club.
United fans know that their club, rare among football teams, is a profitable business, but half of that profit goes to servicing the Glazers’ debt. And that sets limits on how much the club can spend in the transfer market, particularly when measured against the lavish outlays of some of its title rivals, such as Manchester City (who have yet to win the English Premier League) and Chelsea (who have done). Whereas United’s owners appear to have acquired the club for entrepreneurial reasons, for Sheikh Mansour and Chelsea’s owner, the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, a football club is a vanity asset not required, at least in the near term, to generate a return on investment. Last season, City recorded an annual loss of $317 million – the highest in the history of English football. That’s hardly surprising, really, given the billion dollars and counting that Sheikh Mansour has spent largely on acquiring some of the best players in the world, lured to a no-name club with salaries sometimes double what they’d earned at their previous teams. If City are the Cinderella team, that would be Cinderella après-glass-slipper-fitting, having become queen and richest lady in the land.
Not that the City fans are complaining: Chelsea has proven that the only way into English and European soccer’s elite, nowadays, is to become a vanity purchase by a billionaire with cash to burn in assembling a squad capable of matching those at the top. (Pity Chelsea, though, if Abramovich ever tires of it, and calls in the billion dollars or so that the club owes him, unless some other magnate is ready to take the club off his hands.) And that’s what makes Monday’s clash so difficult for neutrals. Everyone outside of the Old Trafford faithful would love to see an end to the ridiculous dominance of United, which has won the league title in four of the last five seasons and is going for its 13th title in 20 years. But it’s hard to think of a team assembled at such massive cost as City’s has been as underdogs, in any sense. United are hardly paupers, of course — their own squad was assembled over a longer period for around $370 million — and Mitt Romney might call it class envy, but something about a rival club essentially buying the title sticks in the craw even of many longtime United-haters.
In the head-to-head comparison, United has the added charm of age. In one of the most unlikely stories of recent years, it dragged (or perhaps gently persuaded) its 37-year-old former midfield general Paul Scholes — a player with few rivals in his ability to run a game — out of retirement. He rejoined the squad in January — ironically, his first game back was at City in the FA Cup, a game Utd won 3-2 — and has turned in match-winning performance after match-winning performance. And Scholes isn’t even the old man of the squad; that would be 38-year-old Ryan Giggs, the Welsh international who first ran out in the famous red shirt 21 years ago, and attributes his continued ability to win matches with decisive runs, passes and goals to his dedication to yoga — not the sort of thing any player in an English dressing room would have admitted a few years ago.
What makes Monday’s clash all the more intriguing are the obvious flaws in both teams. United’s attacking options remain a deadly threat, with Wayne Rooney dropping deep and getting through a lot more ball-winning work than most forwards in England, while two of Nani (if deemed fit to play), Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia bring the danger out wide. Ferguson will have to decide whether to play a second striker — either Danny Wellbeck or Mexico’s “Chicharito” Javier Hernandez — or reinforce his midfield by adding Giggs or the hard-working Ji-Sung Park alongside Scholes and Michael Carrick.
But United’s problems this season have come at the back — indeed, they’d have been largely beyond City’s reach if they hadn’t conceded four goals last weekend at home in an extraordinary eight-goal draw with Everton. United’s defense has been improbably leaky for a champion side: Goalkeeper David De Gea has had a nightmare first season in England, showing an ability to make brilliant reflex saves but also to sometimes be spooked into committing howlers by the high balls lobbed into his domain as big forwards bear down on him — a mainstay of some of the less well-endowed English sides. In the center of defense, Rio Ferdinand is getting on a little, and may lack a split second of the pace that he had a couple of years ago; his main partner, Nemanja Vidic, has been out most of the season with an injury (and knocks have kept Ferdinand out of a number of games, too). Some of United’s defensive replacements have been a little iffy, Phil Jones not quite mustering the form that made his such a desired acquisition in his Blackburn days and Jonny Evans the proverbial disaster waiting to happen, while at left back Patrice Evra has lately been prone to defensive lapses, and the right back spot vacated by Gary Neville’s retirement hasn’t been adequately filled by either Chris Smalling or Rafael.
On the other hand, City squandered a commanding lead at the top of the table by dropping 10 points in the space of a month, starting in March, with losses against Swansea and Arsenal and draws with Stoke and Sunderland. Although they’ve bounced back, scoring 12 goals in three wins on the trot, City’s ‘galactic’ makeup — a squad of players of big egos and even bigger paychecks, many of whom have barely had a season together — raises questions over their collective temperament in the face of adversity. And their forward line contains not one, but two players both sublimely gifted and temperamentally challenged. Argentine striker Carlos Tevez is a talented never-say-die battler you’d want on the field when a game needs saving by a sheer act of iron will. Except that when coach Roberto Mancini called on him to do just that, in a Champion’s League match away to Bayern Munich late last year, Tevez — who had been among City’s substitutes, and had long expressed a desire to leave the club — refused to play.
That unprecedented show of petulance prompted Mancini to vow that Tevez would never play for the club again, and the (if you will) striking striker went home to Argentina, eventually forfeiting some $15 million in salary and fines, yet the club failed in their efforts to sell him. And so Tevez was improbably welcomed back, proving his worth with a number of vital goals in recent games — even if he had to endure some witty stick from opposing fans. Still, not the sort of thing you want when it comes to building morale and team spirit, and establishing the authority of the coach in the dressing room — remember, all the players heard Mancini say that Tevez would never play for City again. Then again, Tevez once played for United, and loves nothing more than sticking it to the club that sold him. And he’s rather good at it.
And then there’s Mario Balotelli, the mercurial Ghanaian-Italian striker who may be one of the most naturally gifted players currently in the Premiership, but with an explosive temperament (in more ways than one) that has earned him three red cards this season — and resulted in a number of clashes both on and off the field with his teammates. Balotelli is available for Monday’s game, having completed his three-match suspension for a red card against Arsenal, but Mancini, who has hinted that he might recall him, faces the dilemma of whether he can risk finishing the match with ten men in order to harness Balotelli’s gifts. The third striker, Argentina’s Sergio Aguero, just gets on with scoring goals. The fourth option, Bosnian Edin Dzeko, has proven a relative disappointment after his move from Germany though perhaps there’s some relevance in both Balotelli and Dzeko scoring two goals apiece in the 6-1 thrashing at Old Trafford last October.
The two sides are fairly evenly matched in midfield, with Mancini likely to field Gareth Barry and Yaya Toure in the middle behind Samir Nasri and David Silva (although one of those two, or one of the strikers, might be sacrificed to bring in Dutch hard man Nigel De Jong to win the midfield battle). Defensively, Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott have probably been the Premiership’s most effective center-back pairing, and Joe Hart has been its standout goalkeeper.
It is, as the saying goes, anybody’s game. And, of course, United need only to draw. Still, expect City to mount a furious blitz in the first 20 minutes to draw first blood and force United to come forward to open things up. Given the stakes (Utd’s manager Sir Alex Ferguson has described it as “probably the most important derby game in my time”), and the passions of the crowd, this could be the match of the season.