Tonight's Manchester derby is a title decider in all but name. A win for United and the Premier League is probably theirs. But a City victory will put the Blues in pole position.
In this most bizarre of Premier League seasons, it seems to jar that the title's outcome will boil down to an old-fashioned title decider, writes Fred Mikardo-Greaves.
After being confounded on a weekly basis by myriad fluctuations at both ends of the table, punters may feel cheated at the prospect of the whole nine-month slog being settled by an 90-minute kickabout in east Manchester.
Of course, no head will officially be crowned on 30 April. There are still a few more games knocking about after this one, which could throw a spanner in the works. City’s trip to Newcastle on 6 May looks particularly tough. And then there is the tried and tested "Fat lady sings" theorem to take into account.
But the consensus - both inside and outside the clubs - is that whoever wins this derby will emerge victorious in three weekends' time. There have only ever been two teams in the title race (sorry, Spurs), and at times they have been so utterly superior to the rest that one could only put aside allegiances and admire.
'Worst day ever'
City were unstoppable for the first quarter of the season, which included the 6-1 annihilation of United that Sir Alex Ferguson has called his "worst day ever in football".
The depth of quality in their squad, combined with sheer bloody-mindedness, has seen City roar back into life after the supposedly fateful 1-0 defeat at Arsenal earlier this month.
Meanwhile United, who did exceptionally well to just keep pace with City in those opening months, pose as much threat as they have done at any point in Sir Alex's tenure, having dropped points just three times this calendar year. They are still in with a chance of equalling their record points total for a top-flight campaign.
Which of Balotelli or Tevez gets to play the pantomime villain in this production? Will Rooney conjure up a moment of genius?
Run down the probable teamsheets, and in every position you find quality and question marks. Which of Balotelli or Tevez gets to play the role of pantomime villain in this particular production? Can Paul Scholes dictate the battle ahead of City's young pretenders? Will Wayne Rooney conjure up another moment of sublime genius?
When on song, both sides are capable of rattling up four or five the way Andy Warhol used to screen-print masterpieces: clinically, effortlessly and beautifully. At other times the teams have performed as if their players never met before on a football pitch.
United were bossed in all departments in their defeat to Wigan a few weeks back, and City's performance against Arsenal encompassed everything from hard luck to under-performance, with a healthy degree of self-combustion thrown in for good measure.
Victory means everything
But that was then, and this is now. Monday sees the two best teams in the land competing for the greatest prize in the land. No matter what anyone says, victory means everything here - a red win would consolidate the number one spot, while a blue Monday would place City in line to become the first club to win the Premier League title on goal difference.
United have won at the Etihad in 2012 already, in the FA Cup, but that counts for nothing. The same goes for the 6-1 - they were different matches, on different days, played by different clubs.
By about half past nine, Premier League boss Richard Scudamore will either be dusting down the well-worn bundle of red ribbons or breaking out the box-fresh blues to ring around the trophy. Which ones it will be is anyone's guess.
04 December 2011