Drowing in a sea of hyperbole and wild predictions is a hint of what the future holds for the bitter rivals.
Ferguson is "shredding his legacy at every turn", said the Guardian. "After three seasons of papering over the cracks, it seems most United fans are awaiting the moment that the fault lines tracing a veiny path across Old Trafford are exposed". A new dominant force is expected, a glittering empire to replace the burning ruins of the old. It is the dogged belief that football works in cycles; that there is a clear break from one age to the next, each epoch defined by the dominance of one, and only one, side. Yet is such a simplistic narrative, so appealing to hacks everywhere, necessarily the most accurate? I say this not to belittle Manchester City's achievement, and do not deny that they deserve this title and look set to add many more to it. I say this because sometimes in the midst of hysteria the truth can get a little lost. Predicting the future and belittling the past is not so much impossible as simply pseduo-science. The Guardian quote? It came in 2006, Ferguson's shredded legacy just about to create the most successful period in United's history.
Perhaps bringing up United's roaring recovery to the threat of Chelsea as proof of their continued strength is itself over simplistic, however. Then, as now, the problem lay with a creaking midfield. But in 2006 this was offset with the remarkable rise of Cristiano Ronaldo, the transformation of Darren Fletcher into a passable imitation of Roy Keane and the arrival of Michael Carrick at the peak of his powers. Now Ronaldo is long departed to the La Liga he always lusted after, Fletcher is indefinitely sidelined with a cruel stomach problem and Carrick, while often excellent, cannot dominate the centre of the park on his own. Add to this the fact that Ryan Giggs has finally fallen to the sands of time, Park Ji Sung looks a shadow of his former self and Anderson and Tom Cleverley are fleetingly promising but frequently injury plagued. The enforced return of Paul Scholes was a welcome relief for United but only serves to highlight their paucity in the middle of the park. City can summon Gareth Barry, Nigel De Jong, Samir Nasir, James Milner and the indomitable Yaya Toure. Against such a plethora of talent United's locker room looks nearly laughable.
I wrote some time ago that United's hope against City lay in rapid distribution to the wings. Ferguson shocked the world of football by ignoring my esteemed advice, but in truth I was naive myself. Yes, United can dominate down the wings, their stable of wingers remains formidable, but this depends on having players in the centre who can recycle the ball efficiently enough to feed them. This is a tactic which works admirably against sides weaker in the middle, or those who surge forward leaving gaps a la Spurs, but when United come up against a well drilled middle of the park they are suffocated. Man City did it twice, but the hints came against Barcelona twice in three years, while Bilbao's excellent victory over the Red Devil's showed any side can defeat them should they focus sufficiently on pressuring United's weak centre. Finally, after the best part of a decade in which Ferguson has defied the critics calling for reinforcement in midfield, it appears the jig is up.
So, at the risk of descending into a mad trawl of the transfer rumour grapevine, what can be done to ensure United provide at least stern resistance to a City side with a strong spine, and deep pockets? Well, the early signs look mixed. Shinji Kagawa is oft-touted and he is a far better player than the Asian shirt-seller he is derided as by cynics, but with Mario Gotze alongside him he is not even the best midfielder in the Dortmund side. Eden Hazard is far from certain to join, indeed noises suggests Chelsea and City are more likely destinations, but even if he did it is uncertain how he would fit Ferguson's established system. As a winger he isn't a marked improvement on Valencia or Nani, as a supporting striker he is up against Wayne Rooney and he is too lightweight to be a centre midfielder in his own right. In truth, Yann M'Vila would provide the sort of runner United miss in Fletcher's absence, but he is Arsenal-bound, while Luka Modric would be the passer United need to compete against the big boys but would demand a high premium from Spurs and the sort of wages United, saddled with debt, are doubtful to be able to match.
So is my premise wrong? Are United in fact on a one way road to oblivion? Probably not. Firstly, United still command Rooney, the finest all round player in the league, and a string of excellent individuals who embody the counter-attacking ethos of the side. They also, for now, have one of the greatest strategists ever seen in the game in Ferguson. City, meanwhile, have important decisions of their own to make. Chiefly, if the mass clear out touted in the press occurs, they will need to ensure that the likes of Kolarov, Dzeko and Savic are replaced by top notch reinforcements and not players like...Kolarov, Dzeko and Savic. With a more long term eye, it is utterly crucial how the owners act. They must keep faith with Mancini, yet the fear remains that continued failure in the Champions League could see the club mirror the fate of Chelsea; extremely well funded but terribly run, with a succession of managerial changes destabilising the project. They may well win the league next season, but the challenge will be exceeding Arsenal, Chelsea and Blackburn Rovers before them and following up early success with a sustained era of dominance.
Sunday was the greatest day of football in a generation, the crowning jewel on a season which has been majestic, comical and mercurial in equal measure. Yet it is important in the midst of screaming hyperbole not to neglect facts. United will not cease to be a force overnight; nor will City be unchallenged in their ruthless pursuit of glory. Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs will come again, but it is United who will provide the sternest oppositon in the short term. Much depends on the summer for both clubs: the red half of Manchester will pray for the high profile signings who can catapult them back into contention, while the blue must hope Mancini continues wise team building as opposed to the mad accumulation of galaticos that so undid Chelsea. City have drawn first blood, but to triumphantly turn their back thinking they have delivered the mortal blow would be the greatest mistake they could possibly make.