By Greg Stobart | UK Correspondent
So much for game over. Roberto Mancini can no longer pretend his Manchester City side have no chance of winning the Premier League and tonight the Italian will be raising a glass to Steven Pienaar as his thoughts turn to derby day.
It always seemed destined to come down to next Monday’s all-Manchester clash, despite all of the twists and turns, the peaks and dips over the season in what has been a two-horse race for as long as anyone can remember.
City will go into that game at the Etihad Stadium knowing that three wins from their final three games will be enough to make them league champions for the first time in 44 years. Their superior goal difference to their neighbours - six goals - means they are likely to top the table even if the cross-city rivals finish with the same number of points.
It did not look like it would be that way with seven minutes to play at Old Trafford on Sunday and United leading 4-2 against Everton. At that moment, Sir Alex Ferguson may have even been considering the prospect of winning the title on the ‘noisy neighbours’ own turf.
When he delivered a double fist salute to the Stretford End, he gave the impression that he was confident his side had done enough.
But late goals from Nikica Jelavic and Pienaar turned the game, and the title race, on its head, resulting in a 4-4 final scoreline to put City back in a title race that looked a foregone conclusion a fortnight ago.
When City lost to Arsenal on April 8, they were eight points behind their great rivals with six games to play. Questions were raised over Mancini’s future while some United fans created t-shirts celebrating a record-breaking 20th title.
The stunt, six weeks before the end of the season, always felt premature but nobody expected United would let their rivals back in the hunt so easily. City took full advantage in the later kick-off at Molineux, beating Wolves 2-0 to reduce the gap at the summit to three points.
Now all of a sudden City have the momentum, having come through their bad patch and won three games in a row. The partnership between Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero is clicking, providing the catalyst for fresher, more energetic performances.
The same could not be said for a United, whose showing against Everton summed up their performances for much of the campaign. Brilliant but careless, Ferguson’s men scored some superb goals but were woefully complacent at the back and left the Toffees with far too much space in the penalty area when they should have shut up shop.
United hunted City down to take top spot in the Premier League but now now must get something from a game they thought on Sunday morning they could afford to lose.
"We've given [Manchester City] the initiative, there's no doubt about that," Sir Alex told Sky Sports on Sunday.
"It makes the game at the Etihad a real important game. It's the decider really. We make it hard for ourselves as we normally do. But we have to go there knowing that we're capable of getting a result.
“There's no reason why we can't do that but there's almost an expectancy from City that this could be their decider, but it's our decider too.
"There will be a reaction, alright, there's no question about that. Next Monday against City, it's always a derby game of the highest proportions, and this won't be any different. Yes, [it's] definitely [the most important of my career]. Game on."
While City’s mini-slump was considered inevitable, no-one expected United to loosen their grip on the baton once they turned into the home straight as clear leaders.
They must now show the superior mental strength and team spirit strangely attributed to them by Mancini. The proven winners in the squad - from Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes to Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand - must lead by example when the pressure is really on.
Rooney played his part against Everton, scoring twice to take his tally for the season to 26, in the process becoming the fourth highest goalscorer in the club’s history on 180 goals.
But the United players’ faces at full-time told the story. After the humbling 6-1 demolition at the hands of City at Old Trafford in October, they face the ultimate test of character under the lights at the Etihad Stadium.
The build-up has already begun as this compelling modern rivalry embarks on its latest, most significant chapter. It will be the Premier League’s answer to El Clasico. Manchester waits - and both sides of the city will have the champagne on ice.
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