SHAFAQNA – It was once the game that Manchester United never lost, but it has now become the fixture that they cannot win.
When Louis van Gaal’s United travel to Manchester City on Sunday for the 168th Manchester derby, they will make the five-mile journey across town as underdogs – outsiders in a two-horse race that had become an insignificance for the red half of the city.
Despite United’s dramatic late fightback against Chelsea last Sunday and the signs that Van Gaal is beginning to banish the gloom of David Moyes’ disastrous 10-month reign as manager, Sunday offers the true test of United’s progress and the harsh reality is that they are still not ready for the examination they face at the Etihad Stadium.
Regardless of the starting XI selected by Van Gaal, the best he can put out will still come up short against Manuel Pellegrini’s champions.
United’s only hope is that City have another off-day to add to those they have suffered in the Champions League and against the likes of Stoke City and West Ham this season.
City have their off-days. They have those games when Yaya Toure goes missing, when Vincent Kompany dives in once too often, when David Silva fails to have impact, when Joe Hart’s judgement goes awry.
But they tend not to have the bad days against United and City’s dominance of the fixture is perhaps the truest gauge of how far the balance of Mancunian power has shifted to blue.
During the previous 167 derbies, United have come out on top more than City.
The reds have secured 69 victories and suffered 48 defeats, so United are the traditional power in the city and their honours list reflects this.
But gone are the days when United would treat the Manchester derby as an easy way to collect six points, with Old Trafford’s focus fixed firmly on events at Anfield, Highbury and Elland Road rather than Maine Road.
When City inflicted a 5-1 defeat on United at Maine Road in September 1989, rather than trigger a period of blue dominance, it ultimately became the last vestige of pride for City supporters during a traumatic decade defined by the glory of their bitter rivals at Old Trafford.
In the 16 derbies that followed the 5-1, United won 10 and drew six.
As their stranglehold tightened, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team romped to eight successive victories – a run which was only halted by City’s relegation to the Championship and then into the third tier in 1998.
For four-and-a-half years, the Manchester derby went into hibernation, with United playing Juventus and Barcelona as regularly as City played Stockport and Macclesfield.
But with Kevin Keegan’s City finally ending their barren run against United in November 2002, when Shaun Goater’s goals secured a 3-1 home win in the final derby at Maine Road, the tide began to turn for City.
They learned how to win derbies, United began to travel across town with trepidation and the Etihad became a place where Ferguson’s players suffered as many bad days as good.
But City have now gone one further and started to dominate the fixture as United did during the 1990s.
Of the last six league derbies, City have won five and lost just won. They have dished out some hammerings in that time too, as well as winning the title decider in April 2012, when Kompany’s goal tilted the race in City’s favour.
So when United head to the Etihad on Sunday, they will do so having lost the secret to derby success.
Even if Van Gaal has a fit Wayne Rooney and a Michael Carrick able to return to the team, United still appear too frail defensively to worry City.
Yes, United have goals in them, but who will stop Toure’s buccaneering runs or Silva’s threaded passes?
Who will shackle Sergio Aguero and which United defender is good enough to match Edin Dzeko in the air?
The derby has become the game in which City’s top stars all come out to play and the one which United’s weaknesses are exposed.
United now know how it felt to be City when trophies flooded into Old Trafford and, with Van Gaal’s team still a work in progress, there may be more pain ahead on Sunday.