Battle of Manchester Puts Widening Gap Between England’s Best, Rest on Clear Display

Manchester United - Manchester CityThe arc of the last eight months of Premier League soccer made the buildup to and fallout from Monday’s Manchester derby anticlimactic.

Coming into the contest, Manchester United had amassed a 15-point lead over second-place Manchester City thanks to a stunning run which has spanned the bulk of the season. The Red Devils had won 25 of their first 30 league games and hadn’t lost any of their past 18, dating back to November. City, by contrast, has struggled to reproduce the form and consistency that saw it capture last season’s league title.

But for 90 minutes, Manchester City reminded a global audience that, on any given day, it can be as good or even better than that “killing machine” that is present-day Manchester United. Sergio Aguero‘s stunning solo goal gave City a 2-1 win and a measure of solace heading into the final weeks of the season.

Much of the postgame chatter pointed to next season, as City manager Roberto Mancini pledged that his team will challenge for the 2013-14 title (he also sounded certain that he would still be in charge by then). But what should we make of the present?

Despite the loss, United leads City by 12 points with just seven games left to play. It’s a forgone conclusion that United will win this season’s title with City finishing in second by some distance. Monday’s result, coupled with the outcomes of the Manchester derbies of 2011-12 and 2012-13, suggests that the real gap between City and United may be less than the 12-point difference in the standings. City’s troubled season can be seen as a blip, or the result of a series of on-field and off-field mistakes that players, Mancini (and his staff) and club hierarchy made since lifting the Premier League trophy in May. It’s only natural that a fast-growing institution like Manchester City Football Club would experience growing pains and bouts of mismanagement that have a real effect on results.

City’s players showed that they can beat the league’s best on Monday, giving us every reason to believe that they will challenge for next season’s title. While many are expecting a summer clear-out that will see a number of players leave the club, Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Pablo Zabaleta, Gael Clichy, Yaya Toure and David Silva are almost certain to stay for at least another season and perform at an elite level. It’s likely that City will supplement that core group with a number of expensive and high-profile signings this summer who could tilt the balance of power back  in its favor.

United’s squad is brimming with talent and Sir Alex Ferguson should remain in charge for at least another season. United will continue to progress and remain the league’s most formidable team under Ferguson’s watchful eye. The structure in place at Old Trafford, combined with the club’s growing financial clout, almost assures that this trend will continue for the foreseeable future.

A stable United and resurgent City doesn’t bode well for the rest of the league. This season’s title charge was essentially a two-horse race, and it wasn’t a very good one. The Manchester duo took their battle for supremacy down to the final moments of last season, finishing level on points. There was a 19-point gap between them and third-placed Arsenal. When this season ends next month, the distance between the second and third-placed teams will be significant — it currently stands at 13 points.

There is a great deal of truth in the old adage which says the league standings don’t lie. Unless the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool make significant progress — and do so at a faster rate than United and City this summer — fans and neutrals will be treated to another two-horse race between the Manchester clubs for the title in 2013-14. That will make a third straight season where that is the case, taking some of the shine off of a league which prides itself on being the world’s greatest and most competitive. In fact, it just might make the buildup to and fallout from next season’s campaign a bit anticlimactic.

Have a question for Marcus Kwesi O’Mard? Send it to him via Twitter at @NESNsoccer or @mkomard, his Facebook page or NESN Soccer’s Facebook page or send it here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week for his mailbag.

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