As City Hosts United, the Manchester Derby May Decide the English Premiership Race

There are 20 teams in the English Premier League but, realistically, only two of them can win the league this season

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Manchester City's Ivory Coast footballer Yaya Toure (Foreground) vies for the ball against Manchester United's English midfielder Paul Scholes during their English Premier League football match at The Etihad stadium in Manchester, north-west England on April 30, 2012.

There are no playoffs or finals in the English Premier League; the champions are the team with the most points on the board (or if tied, a superior goal difference) after the last game of the season. Still, as it turned out, last season’s Manchester derbies retrospectively served as a two-leg decider, and chances are that this Sunday’s meeting between City and United (Fox Soccer Channel, 8.30 a.m. Eastern) will be the first leg of the current season’s title game.

City won last season’s Premiership with a thrilling last-minute goal by Sergio Aguero that gave them victory over Queens Park Rangers, and 89 points — the same tally as United. But City had scored 93 goals over the season’s 38 games and conceded only 29, while United had scored 89 and conceded 33. Goal difference settled it. Which makes the derbies arguably that campaign’s decisive games:  City wouldn’t even have come within striking range of the title had they not taken all six points on offer in their two meetings with United in 2011/12. It was City’s astonishing 6-1 thrashing of United at Old Trafford in October of 2011 — the first time since 1930 that United had conceded six goals at home — that confirmed the title credentials of a Cinderella team suddenly endowed with untold riches courtesy of the royal family of Abu Dhabi. Winning the home leg 1-0 just three weeks before the season ended meant that then-leaders United could be reeled in.

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The six points and six-goal advantage City took from their two derby meetings denied United what would have been their 20th league title. The stakes may be just as high on Sunday.

Not even halfway into the season, the Premier League is already looking like a two-horse race. United top the table with 36 points; City are second with 33. Chelsea is third on 26 (the same tally as Spurs and West Bromwich Albion), but the former champions’ troubles suggest they may struggle to claw back the deficit. Of last season’s other contenders, Arsenal are 10th on 21 points, which is their worst ever start to a season under manager Arsène Wenger, and looking like a club in deep trouble, while Newcastle are 14th with 17 points.

(MORE: Arsenal FC is a Sound Business Operation, Which May be Why it Won’t Win Titles)

A City win on Sunday, though, would put them back on level terms with their neighbors, in the shadow of whose glories they’d suffered through many a decade before last season. But don’t expect a classic showcase of attacking football. “We need to come out unscathed and, with so much at stake, I wonder if there will be a little bit of caution from both clubs,” United coach Sir Alex Ferguson warned this week.”[City coach] Roberto Mancini and I will both have to think deeply about our selections and tactics and there may well be an element of playing safe.”

At the same time, he warned, being a derby — the games whose uniquely volatile chemistry is created by the passion of local tribal rivalry — anything could happen. (Red cards are more common in derbies precisely because the frenzied passion of the crowd often rubs off on the players, prompting rash tackling.) And the cautious comments could simply be mind games, with United planning to tear into their neighbors from the kickoff to avenge last season’s humiliation.

And the spectacle may be made all the more compelling by the fact that neither side looks anything close to its best. City made an ignominious exit from the European Champions League in Dortmund this week, having failed to win even one of their six group games, though the dreaded Group of Death tag could be fully justified for once as the English title winners were up against the champions of Germany (Borussia Dortmund), Spain (Real Madrid) and the Netherlands (Ajax). In the Premiership, despite being the only unbeaten side, they look listless, sometimes turning on the style to demolish opponents, but all too often being held to draws (against Liverpool, Stoke, Arsenal, West Ham, Chelsea and Everton). Goalkeeper Joe Hart has looked more skittish this season; the defense is unsettled with the personnel around skipper Vincent Kompany constantly changing — and also the tactics, with Mancini repeatedly experimenting with a three-man defense that full-back Micah Richards publicly warned was beyond the players’ imaginations (the footballing gods took unkindly to his outburst as he was injured soon after). David Silva has rarely shown up with the sort of scintillating playmaker performances that made him such a joy to watch last year (he may not recover from an injury in time for Sunday); Samir Nasri, too, turns it on in fits and starts; Aguero has been out injured for a number of games, and while Carlos Tevez, back in favor after last season’s shenanigans, works hard at making himself dangerous in the opposition’s final third, neither of the other two strikers in the rotation, Edin Dzeko and Mario Balotelli, looks settled in the team. All too often, they’ve relied on Yaya Toure — usually pushed into a more advanced midfield role when Mancini, in his signature tactical substitution, adds a defensive midfielder at the expense of a forward — to deliver the vital goal. In short, City have looked far from convincing this season, as their European woes have demonstrated. But Sunday could be a great opportunity to kick-start their title challenge.

(VIDEO: TIME’s Exclusive Interview with Mario Balotelli)

United might sit atop the table, but they’ve hardly been playing like champions-elect. They were 3-2 down at lowly Reading last Saturday after only 23 minutes, eventually winning 4-3. The Red Devils are conceding far too often for comfort and, incredibly, have had to come from behind nine times in their last 13 Premier League matches. United have lost three times (at home to Spurs, away at Everton and Norwich), have conceded 21 goals, and have only kept three clean sheets. Last week’s antics at Reading were almost comical; City fans may have been tempted to sing “there’s only one Jonny Evans” as the fifth-choice centerback appeared to be repeatedly at fault as he filled the shoes of more capable but injured defenders.

But United are top because they score more than they concede. The $50 million they spent on bringing in Robin Van Persie from Arsenal has been worth every penny, as the Dutchman remains probably the most reliable marksman in the league and has weighed in with eight goals so far. So what if Wayne Rooney has scored only two, his linkup play with the midfield is superb, and there’s no shortage of goal threat with “Chicharito” Hernandez bagging five and attacking midfielder Shinji Kagawa, who may return from injury on Sunday, likely to weigh in with a lot more than the two he currently has to his name. Winger Ashley Young and striker Danny Wellbeck are always a goal threat when they’re given a run out.

Despite neither club being on fire this season, their hold on first and second place, respectively, is a function of having talented squads that can grind out the decisive goal to take the three points in a deadlocked game — and the fact that so many of their traditional rivals, such as Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool are struggling to manage difficult transitions, trailing behind less probable contenders such as Everton, West Brom and West Ham, who’re not strong enough to challenge the established order at the very top over the course of nine gruelling months.

(MORE: Why Liverpool Fans Are Loving Chelsea’s New Coach)

The declining relative strength of the English clubs was, in fact, highlighted in the Champions League, where both the current champions Chelsea and Manchester City bowed out this week without getting past the group phase, while nobody’s likely to bet heavily on Arsenal making much headway in the knockout stages. That’s a far cry from a couple of years ago, when three of the four semi-finalists were Premiership sides.

While it’s hard to imagine most of the competition catching either United or City, such is the state of the Premiership that you wouldn’t bet the house on either Manchester club winning an away game at any of the 12 clubs below them on the league table. This season’s league title may yet turn out to be a kind of last-man-standing affair — and will likely turn in no small part on Sunday’s result.

TIME MAGAZINE: Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson