The biggest tests in the European theatre might also still lie ahead but it won’t go unnoticed that, with Liverpool drubbing Spartak Moscow on Wednesday night, five English clubs have qualified for Monday’s Champions League knock-out draw round for the first time ever, quite the contrast with the low watermark of 2012/13 when only Manchester United and
Arsenal made the last 16 where they were knocked out by, respectively, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.
The latter went on to win the Champions League that year, beating Borussia Dortmund at Wembley in what now seems like a symbolic colonisation of Blighty by the European powers.
The year before, Chelsea became the last English club to lift the glittering prize and, since that all-German final in 2013, Barcelona with one win and Real Madrid with three, have made it a story of seamless Spanish succession.
So the Premier League still has a lot of ground to make up if its self-styled ‘greatest league in the world’ billing is to mean something more than promotional hype.
But at least, that wearying hard sell should be justified tomorrow as a Manchester and Merseyside derby day holds out the prospect of a feast of attacking football, showcasing some of the finest, most in-form players currently operating on the global stage. (And since I now appear to have succumbed to my own dose of Supersundayitis, you can safely plunge on two scoreless draws at Old Trafford and Anfield).
While the top two clash in Manchester obviously can’t decide the title, it already has the feel of a game which will go a long way to determining who the eventual winners will be.
Right now, it’s City, eight points clear, who are firmly on course to be champions but, if after tomorrow’s game, the gap is narrowed to five instead of stretched to 11, the boost to United’s hopes will be in inverse proportion to the damage done to their rivals’ growing sense of invincibility.
In United’s breathless 3-1 victory over Arsenal, the Premier League has already given us a game of the season contender.
And while the personnel involved tomorrow provide grounds for hoping that this Manchester derby might emulate or even eclipse last week’s classic at the Emirates, the higher stakes at play could have the effect of curbing the enthusiasm of both sides.
Certainly, arch-pragmatist that he is, it’s hard to see Jose Mourinho putting out a team intent on winning in ‘the United way’, even in a Manchester derby at Old Trafford.
The reflex on the Stretford End might still be to urge the red shirts to ‘attack, attack, attack’ but, though a bit more of a mouthful, ‘counter-attack, counter- attack, counter-attack’ would be a more appropriate soundtrack for how United go about their business under Mourinho.
Against Arsenal, the press-and-penetrate strategy ultimately worked a treat, United capitalising on two defensive howlers and completing the win on a sweeping break to render irrelevant all those negative stats the visitors amassed in that game — including facing a club record 33 shots on goal as well as chalking up their lowest ever possession and passing percentages since such data began to be collated in 2003.
Against free-scoring City, it’s inconceivable that United could ride their luck again to the same extent, even if David De Gea were to pull off another worldie or three.
The loss of the power of Paul Pogba in midfield only makes their task even more difficult and, especially in his absence, it’s little wonder that Mourinho has insisted that Nemanja Matic will play even if he is carrying an injury.
For United to have any hope of nullifying City, the Serb’s ability to sniff out danger,
disrupt supply lines and screen the heart of the defence will be of vital importance.
Still, seven goals scored in their last two Premier League games testify to the potency of United’s own attacking threat, with Romelu Lukaku’s goal against CSKA Moscow on Wednesday ending a period of personal drought and coming as a timely boost ahead of tomorrow’s showdown.
If not exactly a famine, then Man City’s most recent outings have been a slightly troubling departure from the feast of high-scoring entertainment with which Pep Guardiola’s team have become synonymous this season.
In Europe, Shakhtar Donetsk have also punctured their air of invincibility but in the Premier League City have maintained their dominance by winning their last three Premier League outings.
But those victories have been by the narrowest of margins against Huddersfield, Southampton and West Ham, teams who have clearly learned the lesson that if you don’t make it as hard as possible for the leaders, they can, as Stoke found to their cost when being hit for seven in October, put you to the sword.
You could argue that three successive 2-1 wins suggests City are losing some of their swagger but, equally, such victories can be submitted as evidence that, even when requiring a touch of ‘Fergie Time’ to claim the three points, City are demonstrating that there are different ways to seal the deal, with spirit now proving as important as style.
And that, it is has commonly been accepted down through the ages, is the stuff of champions.
For all the finesse and firepower in this City line-up, and the scintillating quality of their play when De Bruyne, Sane, the rejuvenated Sterling, injury doubt Silva and Aguero and/or Jesus are in high gear, it’s that ability to dig deep which may be the key to prevailing against the side with the Premier League’s best defensive record.
There’s been talk in the build-up that Mourninho would have few qualms about parking the bus in his own backyard, however much that might offend the traditionalists at Old Trafford.
But, with all the pressure on the home side to try and ensure that City’s pursuit of the title doesn’t turn into a procession, United will surely have to be more ambitious than that.
For the neutral, the ideal scenario tomorrow would be an early City goal forcing United to come out and play but, however this game pans out, it’s one which the whole football world will be watching with fascination as English football shapes up to take centre-stage again.