"A disorderly mob is no more an army than a heap of building materials is a house." Not my words - obviously - but those of none other than Socrates himself. It's a quote that either of the two teams about to contest the first-versus-second, title-deciding Manchester Derby might do well to heed, particularly with Manchester City most closely resembling a ton of bricks with the way they've reacted to the glamour of the Champions League.
The caveat is though, that not only are United and City a rabble, but so is everyone else, and to an even greater extent. It's an odd era of football, where we're told that the game is played faster, better, harder, and stronger than ever before, where our greatest players break records on a weekly basis, and yet nobody, absolutely nobody, seems to be playing particularly well. And if nobody else has an army, or a house, then you can probably get away with not having one either - nobody can possibly find you out. And with United and City both once again competing for the crown of Least Likely To Self-Combust, Sunday's clash and indeed the rest of the season is likely to just be a competition between who has the bigger heap of bricks.
It is a two-horse race, after all. Tottenham look like they'll quietly claim fourth without upsetting anyone, Arsenal are a dirty joke, and Chelsea can now be firmly discounted - even if they do sign Falcao in January, they quietly bowed out of the title race last week when Rafael Benitez uttered, matter-of-factly, to a throng of journalists: "We can still win the title." Being title contenders is like being famous, or if you share the worldview of Martin Samuel, gay - if you have to tell people you are, you're probably not.
The strangest part of this is that there is no excuse or logic behind the two Manchester clubs' situation. City have the better team, without any doubt, yet a combination of shocking mental weakness in Europe and some needless experimentation with formations has left them adrift of United and not even making the Europa League. Mancini's role in City's performances over the past year has been the opposite of what he would like - the skill and imagination of the players seem responsible for all of the victories, while his meddling and negativity looks culpable for all of the defeats.
On the red side, meanwhile, the ridiculous Paul Pogba affair leaves only incompetence and myopia as reasons for the state of United's midfield. The Glazer regime may not be the most free-spending, but they're not the ones allocating the resources available to the likes of Ashley Young. Similarly, United's defence is playing at a fraction of the level they are capable of, with the likes of Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand having disastrous starts to the season. Other than in the case of Rafael, it's not a simple case of United attacking in vast numbers and leaving themselves open to attack - which would not only be forgivable but admirable - but rather schoolboy errors, ball-watching, meek tackles, and dodgy positioning that have cost them goals. In short, they don't look particularly bothered.
What makes this particularly odd is that Alex Ferguson and Roberto Mancini have been giving the mind-games full gun in the build-up. First we had some traditional injury-baiting from Fergie, insisting Nemanja Vidic would return for Tuesday, then saying there'd be no chance of him playing Sunday, then hinting that Shinji Kagawa might make a surprise return. Then we had Mancini attempting to come across as nonplussed by hardly resting anyone before losing to Dortmund. Then Ferguson gives some spiel about what a remarkable achievement it would be for Plucky Little Manchester United to pull off a win.
The reason this is strange is that it suggests there is going to be too much thought over team selection, tactics, and mentality. Such considerations are usually for title races where both teams are playing their A-game and the match is likely to be decided by the narrowest of margins. That is very much not the case with these two, and the scoreline on Sunday could be anything. It could be an absolute stinker as both sides fight a dour 0-0 due to their lack of fluidity. Equally, their awful defending could result in a 4-4. Or of course, someone could not turn up and get hammered 6-1. These are all well within the realms of possibility, but they shouldn't be for a clash between two title contenders.
The result then, is likely to be determined by those old punditry fallbacks: "whoever turns up", "whoever gets a bit of luck", "whoever settles into the game the quickest." It's a game that defies analysis, but in more of an Emile Heskey way than Lionel Messi. It could be a fantastic, enthralling encounter. In fact, it probably will be. Just don't insult our intelligence by pretending that a team who finished bottom of their group in the Champions League and a team who haven't had a single convincing win against anyone all season are going to get so much right that they're going to be sweating over the details.