The latest edition of the Manchester Derby will convene later today. City and United are still vying for a Top Four place, and with only one point separating the former in fourth and the latter in fifth, both Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho know that today’s clash could be decisive.
It speaks to how much this fixture has evolved over the years that they are in direct competition with each other for a particular league finish. For much of the Premier League era, United were the dominant force in English football while City were, uh, “just happy to be there.”
But even when they weren’t fighting each other for Champions League football, the stakes for any given Manchester Derby frequently went well beyond simple local pride.
This week we look back at one memorable Derby where both teams stood on the edge of a knife— for very different reasons.
We referenced City’s disastrous 1995-96 season in the Premier League just last month. If you read that piece, you know that their campaign ends in tragedy and heartbreak. This may make today’s column somewhat anti-climactic, as far as the season goes. Suffice it to say— City went into the Derby in April 1996 loitering in the relegation zone, and with only a month left in the season this match was a must-win.
United, on the other hand, were in a much stronger position. Their strong run of form since New Years’ Day saw them catch up with league leaders Newcastle and finally overtake them a few weeks prior to the Derby. It was largely neck-and-neck at this point, so despite City’s obvious weaknesses, United couldn’t afford to underestimate their crosstown opposition.
The teams wasted precious little time in what would end up being a classic of this fixture. In the opening minutes, Denis Irwin was brought down in the box, earning a penalty which was duly converted by Eric Cantona. United controlled much of the first half, gifted with opportunities to extend the lead that didn’t quite materialize.
But City regained some hope as the opening act wound down; in the 39th minute, Mikheil Kavelashvili snuck in to finish off a headed layoff at close range, levelling the score and waking up the Maine Road crowd.
Yet the momentum didn’t carry them far. Two minutes later, Andy Cole finished off some quick build-up play on the edge of the box to slot it into the far post. United wound up taking a 2-1 lead into the halftime break.
City came out of the tunnel for the second half with guns blazing, launching one counterattack after another, forcing Peter Schmeichel into some heroic late saves. United seemed content to sit back and soak the pressure as their hosts sent dangerous balls into the box.
United’s plan didn’t serve them well. At the end of a counterattack in the 71st minute, Uwe Rösler went one-on-one with Steve Bruce, beat the Englishman, and sent the ball curling just inside the far post to level the score at 2-2. The home fans went bonkers, but no one was able to celebrate for long. There was still 20 minutes left, plus stoppage time. Could City hold on and get a draw?
No. No they could not. Just six minutes later, Cantona led a charge and laid off to Ryan Giggs, who hit a shot from a tight angle and placed it inch-perfect into the top corner. It’s the kind of goal you can just watch over and over again, mesmerized by the sheer improbability of the placement.
Unless you were a City fan, of course. Because that goal gave the win to United, and those dropped points may well have doomed the Sky Blues.
United managed to secure four wins and one draw from their last five games, and their 3-0 win against Middlesbrough on the last day of the season was enough their third Premier League title in four seasons. Meanwhile, City took seven points from the last twelve on offer, and in the waning minutes in their match against Liverpool on the last day there was hope in the squad and the stands that they might escape the drop. But the draw just wasn’t enough.
City host today’s edition of the Derby, knowing that a loss will see their rivals leapfrog them into the Top Four. The stakes and pressure on today’s fixture are enormous. Kickoff is at 3pm Eastern on NBC Sports.