LONDON — A white-hot Premier League football title race is put on the back-burner this weekend as holders Manchester City and Manchester United slug it out for bragging rights, rather than points, when they meet on Sunday in the pick of the FA Cup third round ties.
Retribution will be firmly on United manager Alex Ferguson’s mind with the fierce rivals meeting almost three months after City inflicted a stunning 6-1 league defeat on their neighbours at Old Trafford.
The clash at City’s Etihad Stadium is also a repeat of last season’s semi-final which City won 1-0 before securing their first major trophy for 35 years by beating Stoke City in the final.
A hectic holiday programme saw both sides stutter to surprise defeats, United losing twice in five days to strugglers Blackburn at home and then at Newcastle United on Wednesday.
City were sunk by a late goal at Sunderland, but their midweek 3-0 win over Liverpool helped them preserve a three-point lead at the top of the league.
City’s six-goal salvo on Oct- ober 23, United’s worst home defeat since 1955, put them five points clear at the top and was described by Ferguson as his “worst ever day”.
African Footballer of the Year and Ivory Coast international Yaya Toure will play his last game for City before leaving for the African Nations Cup which gets underway later this month.
Mancini said the midfielder, who scored and set up another goal in the win over Liverpool on Tuesday, was “irreplaceable”.
“I have tried to find another Yaya in my squad, but there isn’t another Yaya,” Mancini said.
“He will be a big loss and it will be difficult because he is such an important player for us and we have so many games.”
The third round draw produced just one other all-Premier League clash with Newcastle United hosting Blackburn, but there are plenty of other interesting ties.
Ten-time winners Arsenal host Championship (second division) Leeds United on Monday in a repeat of the 1972 final, while Chelsea welcome Portsmouth to Stamford Bridge on Sunday in a repeat of the 2010 final which the Londoners won 1-0.
There are also some spicy local derbies in prospect, none more so than at St Andrews where Birmingham City, relegated from the Premier League last season, host Wolverhampton Wanderers tomorrow.