The good, bad and ugly of the Manchester derby

Martin Rogers

It is the local derby clash that could go some way towards deciding the outcome of the English Premier League season, but Manchester City and Manchester United are not the only ones getting ready for Sunday's blockbuster showdown.

While this much-awaited contest promises to display the two favorites to lift the Premier League trophy, a police operation has also been launched in an attempt to ensure that all discussion in the aftermath of the game is about soccer, not social ills.

Hooliganism in English soccer was a poisonous and widespread issue in generations past, and though the ugly mass violence of yesteryear has been largely stamped out, the corresponding clash between the Manchester neighbors at City's Etihad Stadium last December featured a series of unsavory scenes that did the sport no good at all.

United defender Rio Ferdinand was left bleeding from a head wound after being hit by a coin hurled from the stands as he celebrated United's decisive goal in the final moments of a dramatic 3-2 win. Moments later, another supporter charged onto the field trying to reach Ferdinand before being stopped by City goalkeeper Joe Hart.

Passion and emotion are part of what makes English soccer special, but it is vital that a line must be drawn. Authorities are well aware of it. Additional police patrols will attempt to ensure an atmosphere that is no less passionate but is devoid of blatant displays of stomach-turning hatred.

Nine months ago some of the graffiti emblazoned upon buildings around the stadium made reference to historical points of grievous sensitivity for both teams. Abusive messages from City fans referenced the Munich air tragedy of 1958 when 23 people, including eight United players, were killed.

On the flip side, messages were found from United fans about Marc Vivien Foe, a former City midfielder who lost his life after suffering from heart failure while playing for the Cameroon national team in the Confederations Cup in 2003.

Quite simply, there is no place for such things either in or around a sporting arena, nor for the flares that were lit and thrown last year, or for the illegal drugs that were reported to have been discovered.

"The derby is one of the most anticipated and exciting games in world football," Hart said. "As players we are all looking forward to Sunday, and we know the fans will be too. As always, we need our fans in full voice, but we also need them to respect the occasion. We want everyone to enjoy the game but be sensible too."

The reality is that this game doesn't need any more hype. No team has yet stamped its authority on the Premier League season and there is a real sense that a morale-boosting derby win could give the victorious side the jolt it needs to surge onwards. Both clubs have collected seven points from their four games so far, three back from surprise early challengers Liverpool.

Each team boasts powerful attacking weapons: United is led by the in-form duo of Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, while Sergio Aguero is the most dangerous forward for City, which has also seen a superb start to the season from midfielder Yaya Toure. However, the pair of new head coaches – David Moyes at United and Manuel Pellegrini at City – have kept their backline secure enough that their teams have allowed just five goals combined in eight games.

Both Moyes and Pelligrini have implemented training regiments that are physically tougher than their predecessors, and while neither likes to go public with his methods, the implication is clear. Losing a little early season energy in exchange for additional stamina when the tough slog of the campaign's winter months kicks in is a sacrifice worth making.

Nothing will be kept in reserve on Sunday, though. Such is the nature of these tussles.

City was once perennially the underdog in such encounters, the poor cousins of Manchester. That's no longer the case. Five years after being bought by Arabian oil sheikhs, the club is firmly established as being capable of matching any team in the world when it comes to finances.

Sunday's Manchester derby is a true test of two heavyweights and one of the ultimate highlights of the English season. Let's hope fans on both sides treat it as such, and the unpleasantness of last December can be consigned to the past.