The Manchester derby of 2012 was probably the most important since 1968. Like now, United needed to avoid defeat. In both those years both clubs were going for the league title and on both occasions City won and became champions. But however big those matches were, no derby attracted as much global media interest as the first derby of last season with Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola newly installed.
The world's best newspapers sent their finest writers, not only to write about the two clubs, but the city of Manchester. A distinguished Italian writer from La Republica came wanting to know why a regional working class industrial city had become world football's most important city. He was pleasantly surprised with Manchester as a city, if not the August drizzle.
Most thought United and City would be successful last season, more so after both clubs won their opening three games. United lost the fourth, outclassed by City, Kevin De Bruyne the star man at Old Trafford. United never really got over it, slipped to sixth and the notion of Jose Mourinho being the closest thing to a manager who guarantees success was tweaked, with attention shifting to silverware in the cups rather than the Premier League. City meanwhile won nothing.
Much was expected of the Mourinho and Guardiola rivalry in their first season in Manchester, but it didn't amount to much. They embraced on the touchline before the September league derby, they both held the opinion that confrontation wouldn't do either of them any good in their new homes.
United finished 24 points behind champions Chelsea and City 15 points off the top. The April Manchester derby was a soporific goalless affair.
Expectations are now higher at both clubs. City are flying, United too. But will the Manchester derby deliver? Like encounters between United and their other great northwest rival Liverpool, the eyes of world football are upon them, yet they often underwhelm.
United's long-time domination, one which saw Ryan Giggs play in 14 derby matches before he was on a losing side in Nov. 2002, has gone. United battered City in the 90s and much of the noughties, so much so that in Nov. 1994, City manager Brian Horton sat his players down in the Old Trafford dressing room before the derby and said: "You know what? I'm fed up of going to United and being negative. We're going to attack them."
Horton had seen Barcelona put four past United a week earlier and thought his City could do the same. City played two out and out wingers and they were 3-0 down in no time with Andrei Kanchelskis roasting Terry Phelan. A great night for United, a terrible one for City. Then, as now, the fans, especially Mancunians, considered it to be a huge match, but the United players didn't prepare for it any differently to a normal game. They simply expected to beat City because they usually did.
City had several notable results in the noughties and grew in strength after their 2008 takeover. The 4-3 United win when Michael Owen grabbed a late goal in 2009 was the first game where City showed their new quality.
The League cup semifinal games of 2010 saw City confident enough to go toe to toe with United on quality. The outcomes have been remarkably equal since 2010, with both teams claiming nine wins each and three draws. City have put six past United at Old Trafford, a game their fans still immortalise in a "It could have been 10" song, while United fans have taken down the Stretford End odometer which used to record the years that City went without winning a trophy. It got as far as 35 before City won the 2011 FA Cup, knocking United out in a Wembley semifinal.
I stood on Wembley Way that day as rival groups of lads with no identifying colours who travelled 200 miles south from the same town squared up to each other, yet were reluctant to throw a punch for they knew it would be on camera. There was trouble that day though.
There's little love lost between the two clubs, between the fans, the players and even relations between officials. It frustrates United employees that they have to work within a conventional business which is expected to watch costs and make a profit, while they feel City are bankrolled and have to worry less about the bottom line. Both clubs poach staff from each other in almost every department, with money -- rather than loyalty -- king. Don't be surprised that United didn't grant City permission to film in their dressing rooms.
Violence between fans has subsided, but Manchester can still be a nasty place on derby day. The security is extensive at the stadiums, with incidents more likely in public houses across the city where both clubs enjoy vast support.
United fans laugh at the myth that there are more Blues in Manchester and they're also amused that City are excelling in the areas that their fans used to criticise -- the marketing, commercialism and global support. City fans used to joke about United being the "Pride of Singapore", but City have chosen to raise their profile in as many countries as possible -- including Singapore.
As the quality of City has risen, with better players and managers, the Manchester derby has grown into one of the biggest games in football. It was a localised affair when I saw my first derby at Maine Road in 1986. My father took me across the forecourt and knew a lot of the ticket touts because he'd played football with them. Only 32,440 attended that day in a ground which held 50,000.
Though United were far better supported (it's been that way since the 1930s), derbies at Old Trafford didn't sell out either -- the stadium was 10,000 short of capacity for the return league derby
of the 1986-87 season. It's only since the early 90s that tickets for derby games have sold out.
This time, there's a feeling among the United players that if they can beat City and cut their advantage back to five points, then the title race is on. Another City win at Old Trafford is not something United fans are contemplating.