The epic English Premier League showdown between intracity rivals Manchester United and Manchester City on Monday at Etihad Stadium is poised to become the most-viewed regular season sports event in history.
The EPL released figures this weekend claiming more than 650 million viewers in over 190 countries are expected to tune in for a clash that is almost certain to decide the league championship.
The intense interest has been sparked not only by the significance of the game, but also by several intricate and fascinating subplots.
United is no stranger to squaring off for league titles, having won 12 since English soccer was restructured in 1992 and the Premier League was formed. However, the enormous influx of cash City has enjoyed since its Middle Eastern ownership group took over four years ago has enabled it to emerge as a genuine contender and add spice to this regional rivalry.
“Manchester City are our direct opponents,” said United manager Sir Alex Ferguson. “City are up against us to win titles. We have to focus on the team who can affect our progress in terms of winning the league. We are going to be battling with them to win titles into the future.”
Ferguson’s comments maybe be the nicest thing he has said about City, who he earlier derided as “noisy neighbors.”. Perhaps it is a sign of genuine respect, or maybe just a twist in the psychological games the wily old Scot uses to gain an edge.
His mental trickery seemed to have the desired effect at the midway point of the campaign, when City and its manager Roberto Mancini appeared to buckle under the pressure following a dominant start to the season.
Recently though, it is United that has started to stutter, losing to lowly Wigan Athletic and, even more shockingly, squandering a late two-goal lead at home to Everton to unwittingly set up this mouthwatering encounter. Monday’s match-up is not strictly a title decider, but everyone is treating it as such.
The buildup to the game in England is akin to a Super Bowl or a Champions League final, and it is hard to see the victor letting things slip. A win for United would effectively put the race to bed, leaving the Red Devils needing only a single point from its final two games to seal the crown.
A draw would keep United three points clear and would also mean that barring any unexpected blunders, the title would be heading to Old Trafford once more. A City win, though, would put the blue half of Manchester in pole position to claim its first English league title since 1968. While the teams would then be level on points, City’s superior goal-difference ratio over the course of the season would serve as the tiebreaker – and if City won its last two games it would become champion provided United did not embark upon an extraordinary scoring spree.
So the game has become a pivotal point in the balance of the relationship between these clubs. There has always been a heated rivalry, with every contest keenly anticipated and fought with passion.
The first clash this season had a dramatic outcome, a swashbuckling 6-1 triumph for City at Old Trafford on an afternoon that seemed as if it could set the tone for the season.
But there is a long history at stake here, with City cast in the role of perennial underdog. As recently as 13 years ago it was struggling in the third tier of English soccer, while a few miles away United blazed a trail of domestic and European success.
A championship this season would help erase the memories of those long and painful years for City fans, most of whom hail from the city of Manchester itself, whereas United draws its support from all over the country and indeed the world.
City midfielder Gareth Barry dismissed the suggestion that his side has an inferiority complex when it comes to United, but admitted that coming from behind in the title race has been a benefit the past few weeks.
“There has probably been less pressure on us,” Barry said. “But now people are saying this is the biggest game in Premier League history.”
City will be buoyed by a superb home record of 16 wins, one draw and no defeats this season, but this is a match-up that will be all about spirit and nerve and will.
United’s psychological steel has been proven over countless years. Will City be tough enough?
A date with destiny, and a worldwide audience, awaits.
Other popular content on Yahoo! Sports:
• Yahoo! Sports' predictions for the 2012 NBA playoffs
• Bernard Hopkins, 47, employs psychological warfare before Chad Dawson fight
• Video: Michael Strahan gives his take on Tim Tebow and the Jets' QB situation
• SMU has a coach-in-waiting – even if school doesn't want to use that phrase