APRIL 7 — This weekend’s European football calendar is dominated by a pair of big local derbies which aren’t quite carrying the significance we had hoped or expected at this stage of the season.
That’s not to say that the all-Manchester affair between City and United at the Etihad Stadium doesn’t matter, because victory would secure the title for Pep Guardiola’s team by sending them 19 points clear with just six games remaining.
However, the whole occasion is threatening to be something of a damp squib, firstly because the game is coming on the back of City’s 3-0 Champions League hammering at Liverpool on Wednesday night.
That was a hugely unexpected scoreline considering the dominance City have enjoyed in English football this season. Liverpool are a very good team and seeing the Reds win the home leg was no great surprise, but doing so by such a big margin — restricting City to zero shots on target in the process – was a major upset for Guardiola’s men.
City’s pain will be intensified by the fact that for the last couple of months, they have been able to prioritise success in the Champions League above all else. It’s been obvious for a very long time that the Premier League was sewn up, allowing City to focus all their energies on their European exertions.
And although there’s still a small chance they could mount a spectacular comeback in next week’s second leg against Liverpool, the nature of the defeat at Anfield must be a massive setback to morale for Guardiola and his players, whose attempts to mentally lift themselves should be significantly aided by the fact that their very next game is a chance to clinch the league title in a local derby against United.
Of course, City and their fans would derive a huge amount of bragging rights if they can seal the title by beating their “noisy neighbours” from Old Trafford. For the rest of us, though, the title race being mathematically decided by early April is a pretty big let-down.
When the fixture list was released before the start of the season, it was easy to highlight this weekend’s game at the Etihad Stadium as a potential effective title decider: City and United always looked like being the two leading contenders, and it was obvious that this meeting could provide a decisive swing in the title race.
But nobody would have predicted that one of the teams would have established such a big lead at the top that this game could be an actual title decider, and the failure of United (or anyone else) to mount an even vaguely serious challenge to City’s dominance has been a big disappointment to neutral fans this season.
An even bigger disappointment, however, has been the league form shown by Real Madrid, whose brief reign as La Liga title holders is poised to come to a swift end after surrendering a huge advantage to runaway leaders.
Real are heading into tomorrow’s home derby against cross-town rivals Atletico no less than 13 points behind Barca, who will probably stretch that advantage to 16 points by beating Leganes at home tonight.
The failure of Zinedine Zidane’s team to stay closer to their Catalan rivals has been a great mystery and could still end up costing the French coach his job if they fail to conclude the season by winning a third consecutive Champions League crown.
This weekend’s meeting is really a decider for second place, with Atletico heading into the derby holding a four-point lead over Real, mainly thanks to a predictably outstanding defensive record which has seen them concede just 14 goals in their 30 league games so far.
Like Man City, both Madrid teams are heading into this weekend’s derby in the middle of a European quarter-final. But the two Spanish teams are in a very different position to City, having both gained comfortable first leg leads with Real dismantling Juventus 3-0 in the Champions League while Atletico overcame Sporting Lisbon 2-0 in the Europa League.
Those victories mean that respective coaches Zidane and Diego Simeone don’t really need to think about resting key players or rotating their squads this weekend, knowing they can instead do so in the forthcoming midweek second legs, which should be a formality in both cases.
So it will be full steam ahead for the victory for both Real and Atletico this weekend, but the fact that they are only playing for second place, with their title challenges long gone, somewhat detracts from the excitement of the game.
Both the Manchester and Madrid derbies are, of course, among the most eagerly anticipated fixtures in the European football schedule. But on this particular weekend, they’re not quite as captivating as they should be.
*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.