It was one of the first games fans and neutrals alike looked for when the fixtures came out. If it was close to the end of the season, they thought, it could determine everything.
And it is. It is next week, when only eight league games remain.
The problem is, the match in question – Manchester United against Manchester City – may not count for very much when the time comes. Not if United come away from Sunderland with three points today.
A look at United’s remaining fixtures suggests that if the Black Cats continue their poor recent form, next Monday’s Manchester derby is all but a dead rubber; which is all the more reason for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men to do everything they can to win this afternoon.
For all the talk of wholesale changes and keeping players fresh, one thing is simple – fifteen points clear with just eight games remaining would take a superhuman effort to overcome and a catastrophic collapse to surrender.
Away games in the Premier League are never easy, and Ferguson’s men still have to visit Stoke, West Ham and Arsenal – where points could easily be dropped. Win today and those trips would be more like jollies.
To look at Sunderland’s league position and write them off would be foolish. There is no such thing as a banker in the Premier League. When you think there is, that is when you are punished.
Lose today and United will wobble. Lose again a week on Monday against City and thoughts of last year will start creeping back.
So it is simple. They must win this afternoon. Because as strange as it may be, this is United’s biggest remaining league game. Not their next one, when a draw will be enough to snuff out what is left of City’s challenge and even a defeat will leave twelve points between them. This one – one the United fans and neutrals probably didn’t go out of their way to look for at the start of the season.
But then in football, it is often those games that decide everything.
If United win today, is the title-race over? And should they put all their efforts into securing three points this afternoon, rather than look ahead to Chelsea?
image: © tomjoad