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Derby doublespeak

It's one of the oldest tricks in the book.

Sir Alex Ferguson celebrates winning a Manchester derby      Photograph: Getty
Sir Alex Ferguson celebrates winning a Manchester derby Photograph: Getty

If you say "Gee, I hope my neighbour doesn't break into my house at night to steal the family silver..." you're not, technically, accusing anyone of anything, but you are planting a seed. This guy is a thief.

Equally, you could say: "Wow, isn't it remarkable? My neighbour was driving a beat-up Ford Escort until last week, now he's cruising around in a Lamborghini Diablo."

Just as harmless a consideration, but just as loaded. The obvious implication is that, since very few – apart from drug dealers and lottery winners – upgrade from an Escort directly to a Diablo, your neighbour could well be one or the other.

Football has its own version of this and it played out ahead of today's Manchester derby. Sir Alex Ferguson pointed out that City were getting a lot of penalties, so many in fact that if United "got that many there would be an inquiry in the House of Commons".

And Roberto Mancini served up his own counter punch: "I remember very well last year when [Ashley] Young was swimming in the box. Four or five times in the last 10 games and no-one said anything. Fergie is clever for this."

OK, message received, loud and clear. City get a disproportionate amount of penalties, and one of the reasons could be that they cheat and con the referees. Young dives ("swims" in Mancinispeak) with abandon and wins lots of penalties, Sir Alex doesn't draw attention to it, so the officials had better be on their toes.

In reality, this little back-and-forth had an intended audience of one: Martin Atkinson, today's referee. It's all about planting the seed of doubt in his head. And, at the same time, giving the media something to talk about. Losing a game on a dubious penalty awarded against you remains a sterling get-out-of-jail-free card. One that's enough to keep the public more focused on refereeing injustice – real or perceived – than the fact that City will be out of Europe and six points back if United win at Eastlands today. Or, should City win to pull level, the opposite: that United have limped through the season thus far, as evidenced by the fact that they've fallen behind on 10 different occasions.

Make no mistake about it, today is a much bigger game for City, than it is for United, with away fixtures at Spurs, Arsenal and the return leg at Old Trafford coming up. In the last nine years, nobody has come back from a six point deficit at this stage of the season to win the Premier League.

That said, it's also worth noting that the oft-cited axiom whereby United start slowly and then storm back crushing everything in their path in the latter half of the season is also a bit of a myth. In the last six seasons only twice have United won more points in the second half of the campaign than the first. On the other four occasions, they've actually tailed off.

Of course, it's equally true that United have punched way below their weight this season. The back four has looked anything but solid, as evidenced by the fact that United have already conceded more goals that Sunderland, who are just above the drop zone and as many as Norwich and Newcastle, who are 12th and 14th respectively. Nemanja Vidic has been back on training for some 10 days now but is unlikely to be risked today: he hasn't played in two and a half months and throwing someone into such a huge game would be a major gamble. It's equally hard to understand the revolving door goalkeeping situation, with Anders Lindegaard and David De Gea continually coming in and out.

The midfield has been equally enigmatic. Apart from Michael Carrick, nobody has started more than seven league games and you feel – whether because of injuries or uneven performances – Sir Alex really can't find any stability there. Against that backdrop, the signing of Van Persie looks not just justified, but necessary as well. It's United's attacking impetus that has kept them afloat.

But most of these problems can be fixed. A fit Vidic and one of Chris Smalling, Phil Jones or Jonny Evans to provide some more consistent performances should sort of defence, as will a commitment to one of the two keepers (ideally De Gea). Tom Cleverley can't be as poor as he's been all season and Darren Fletcher looks fit again. If there's a season where you would – legitimately – expect United to grow stronger, it's this one.

That's why City need to halt the slide here and now. Out of Europe and six points back is not a good place to be. Not with a manager like Mancini, who is defensive and jumpy about his job at the best of times.

Michel Platini's plan for a continent -wide Euro 2020 – matches spread out in a dozen or more nations, rather than in just one or two – was met by the usual complaints from the usual suspects. Mostly, these folks fall into two camps. The ones who hate everything that comes from Uefa and the ones who worry about the "average" fan who will face added expense and difficulty following his or her team throughout the tournament.

The former can't be helped. The latter need a reality check. It's a nice and romantic idea to believe that every four years travelling legions of fans up sticks, move to wherever the Euro is being played and hang out there for a month, religiously following their team.

In the real world though, most fans have jobs, families and responsibility. They simply don't do that. The vast majority of supporters watch international football on TV and that fact alone does not make them second-class citizens.

Nor should we ignore those fans from countries who – realistically – will probably never host a European Championship (especially now that it has bulked up to 24 teams) simply because they come from nations that are just as passionate but happen to be smaller or poorer than required. They will, hopefully, get a slice of the Euros as well.

If it doesn't work out, fine, we can go back to the old system. But this hysterical reaction at what is, after all, a one-off experiment is way over the top.

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