The Manchester derby will take on additional significance on Monday night as England's top two go head to head in a duel that Manchester United FC manager Sir Alex Ferguson believes will decide the destination of the Premier League title.
With three rounds remaining, Manchester United are holding sway in the English top flight, but their three-point lead will disappear on Monday if they lose against arch-rivals, and their only remaining title challengers, Manchester City FC.
A home victory for Roberto Mancini's side would edge City ahead of United on goal difference with the finishing line in sight, lending extra piquancy to an encounter in which local passions run high. Even Sir Alex has recognised Monday night's meeting as the title-decider.
"I am a confirmed masochist," he told reporters on Thursday. "I joined about 26 years ago. I do not know if you thrive on it. I can't even say I can look forward to it but I am up for it, I am prepared for it and I think my players will be prepared for it.
"We have played three times this season in the Charity Shield, the FA Cup and the 6-1 defeat in the league at Old Trafford, but it doesn't matter what has happened before: the build-up to the game, who has dropped points and who hasn’t dropped points ‒ it really is all down to this game."
United's grip on the division has weakened in the last month after they garnered four points from their last three matches, losing against Wigan Athletic FC and conceding two late goals to draw 4-4 with Everton FC last weekend. In the same time-frame, City have rattled off three successive victories and scored 12 goals, with former United striker Carlos Tévez on target four times. But Sir Alex insists his side will rise to the occasion.
"We are in a better position than Manchester City. We can get two results; they can only get one. They have to win. We can draw or we can win, which is what we will be trying to do. There is enough experience there: [Patrice] Evra, [Rio] Ferdinand, even Wayne Rooney now has amassed a lot of football in his short time in the game and there's Michael Carrick."
Mancini has been low key about his side's title prospects, insisting that United are favourites to retain their crown ever since his early-season pacesetters ceded their league primacy. However, with his side having moved back into title contention in recent weeks, the former FC Internazionale Milano coach is even considering recalling Mario Balotelli, despite suggesting his season was over following his dismissal against Arsenal FC on Easter Sunday.
"All the players are available, but I will make my choice on Sunday," said Mancini. "Despite doing some silly things, Balotelli has also made some important contributions, like his two goals at Old Trafford in October [in City's 6-1 win]. He has many qualities. With him, anything is possible. He is young and still makes big errors that can put your team in trouble. But I still think he has great talent."
Sir Alex, who took his squad away on a short break in Wales last week, also has no new injury concerns ahead of the short trip across the city, and may be boosted by the return of striker Michael Owen from a long-standing thigh injury.