Manchester City fans have a lot more ammunition these days when the thorny question, the one that has irked them since time immemorial, is asked: Will their club ever be bigger than United?
But nevertheless it will get asked again this weekend ahead of tomorrow’s Manchester Derby at Old Trafford, a match that once again pits the two clubs together in a battle for top spot in the Premier League and brings City’s ambitions of long-term equality into focus.
There are plenty of traditionalists who will argue their task is simply an impossible one; that however many titles they win – it’s United 20 City 4 at the moment by the way – they can never recreate the feeling of grandeur, history and worldwide appeal that seeps through the pores of Old Trafford, guarded over by legends such as Bobby Charlton, Denis Law, George Best, Eric Cantona and Co.
But although English football loves its history, the game is now played in a modern world; and what the modern world values more than anything is success, money and heroes – three things that Manchester City believe they can offer football-hungry fans in Asia, Africa and America.
A combination of those offerings has certainly done wonders for Chelsea - now widely regarded as one of the world’s ‘big clubs’ even though they were nothing of the sort in the 1980s and early 90s when Liverpool were in their pomp and operating on a different planet to a club whose highlights were not Champions League victories but two ‘Full Members Cup’ successes and two Second Division titles.
In fact, the rise of City is remarkable – they were still playing League One football as recently as 1999 – and if Manuel Pellegrini’s side extend their lead at the top of the table this weekend they may well be on course for a third title in five years in a season whey they have also reported a profit for the first time since Sheikh Mansour took over.
It is significant that those titles have come at a time when Manchester United’s moon has been on the wane; the departure of Alex Ferguson still being felt even now. But is there really an opportunity for City to haul themselves level in the eyes of the wider world when their neighbours remain so iconic?
If anyone is eligible to answer that question then it is Pablo Zabaleta, the Argentine full-back who has seen the whole thing unravel at the Etihad. He joined Manchester City – for a bargain €8m – just a day before the club was bought by Mansour’s Abu Dhabi United group in the summer of 2008 and has been there ever since, winning two Premier Leagues, an FA Cup and a League Cup in that period.
He has heard all the pep talks from above, seen all the plans for the future and watched first hand as many of them took shape both on and off the field; and he has few doubts about City’s direction of travel.
“A lot has changed,” he said, having recently recovered from long-term injury. “It’s unbelievable and the project will continue. The club knows where it wants to go.
“People ask if we can be bigger than United; you hear it all the time. Well City is already a big club and a champion. United have more of a story in Europe, we know that, but now is the time for us to catch them.
“If you look into the future, 10 years from now, then City in 10 years I am convinced will have won some European titles. This is the challenge for us, including this season.” What City have in their favour, of course, is recent history, in particular results from the current campaign which leave them two points ahead of their rivals and going into the weekend in top place..
“Today City is the best club in Manchester,” said Zabaleta, who will be 31 in January. “And we want to confirm that at Old Trafford. We are the leaders in the table and our objective is to stay in this position after the match on Sunday.
“We know this time that United are rivals for the title. Both they and Arsenal are playing with a big level. So it is important to win.”
Should City achieve that goal it will be one more step towards their short-term target of another championship win; but Zabaleta knows it is by no means guaranteed after making similar statements ahead of last year’s fixture – which City lost 4-2 as they allowed Chelsea to finish ahead of them.
“Losing that match was a bitter moment for us,” he said. “But now we want to put it right. To win this time would demonstrate to everyone that we are the leaders in the season.
“United are playing well and have a sensational squad. But without doubt City is playing better in this first part of the season. We want that to continue.” Memories of last season’s defeat will be on City’s minds, however, especially as the old debate of ‘you’ll never be as big as United’ was fuelled on that occasion by pre-match comments from van Gaal - claiming City could never match his club’s history.
“All I can say is that Manchester City’s players and the owners are doing a big, big effort to be a top team - not just in Manchester but also in the Premier League and Europe,” Zabaleta said at the time.
“Probably it’s different history now than years ago where United was the main team in the city. Obviously it’s not like it was before. We are dominating at the moment in the derby games. That shows how Manchester City are improving year after year.” Clearly the Argentine’s words came back to haunt him on that occasion; but City still finished comfortably above United in the Premier League table in the end (as they have done in three of the last four campaigns), nine points ahead of van Gaal’s side who had to be content with fourth.
The chasm between the clubs on the pitch, then, looks to have disappeared; and although it would be foolish to say there is no longer a gap off the pitch – United’s veneer of tradition and glamour is a thick one and their popularity has deep foundations – there is little doubt it is being eroded. Bit by bit, victory by victory. One more on Sunday would be hugely significant.
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