In the past two years, the Manchester Derby has evolved from a curious sideshow into something rather more interesting. For most of the Premier League era, the balance of footballing power has been contested between Manchester United and whichever London side was in the ascendancy. Granted, Manchester United versus Chelsea or Arsenal never brought the same emotional intensity as the more local battles between noisy neighbours City or the traditional rivalry with Liverpool, but Sir Alex Ferguson knew which matches mattered most, and they weren't the derbies.
That changed with the recent rise of Manchester City, capped by their first Premier League title last season. While Chelsea were the second-best side in England during the 2010/11 season, they stumbled last season, leaving City and United as the undisputed class of the league. Over the course of the last 24 months, the two Manchester sides have met six times, and on each occasion there's been something significant on the line.
City 'arrived' on the big stage not with their expensive signings with their FA Cup semifinal win against United in April 2011, and they encountered their arch-nemeses another four times in their title-winning season. Roberto Mancini and company lost in the Community Shield and the FA Cup but took all six points from Ferguson's side in the league, including a crushing 6-1 win at Old Trafford. Without those points, Sergio Aguero's title-winning goal doesn't happen.
Of course, Aguero's last-minute strike against QPR did happen, and as a result, expectations for City would have been high. A Premier League title wasn't Sheikh Mansour's end-game, but rather the entry point into the sport's elite, a beachhead by which they could cement themselves as one of the giants of football, shedding once and for all their reputation as the city's also-rans.
The fact that they go into this match fifteen points behind the Premier League leaders means that they've failed. Manchester City are, as far as this game is concerned, utterly irrelevant to United, who will win the title at a canter no matter the result at Old Trafford on Monday. That's the worst thing that could possibly have happened following that glorious victory last May -- either they've regressed or their neighbours have got better, but either way it's clear that the two sides are no longer on the same level.
Leaving aside the rather confusing question of just how United have been as good as their record shows this year and whether or not they can continue at this sort of level, it's difficult to see how City can match them without a complete overhaul of the squad. The entire side seems not quite good enough to be elite but so close to it that it's almost impossible to upgrade without spending stupid money at all positions. City have cash, but not that much cash, and the fact that they don't have any obvious weaknesses is counter-intuitively a long-term worry.
No matter what happens in the future, however, it's clear that City are, for now, not a side that United need to take seriously. They shed that tag last season, but that forward progress has been wasted and they're extremely fortunate that the likes of Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea have failed to take advantage of their relative weakness -- even if the Premier League is a one-horse race, City are still the best of the rest.
But in order to be taken seriously, in order for the derby to mean something more than ephemeral local bragging rights, they need to be a real threat to Manchester United's dominance. They've made the breakthrough once before, so it can be done, but thanks to a wasted year City have to start from scratch.