Since even before the start of the English Premier League season, fans have penciled in this coming weekend as both a potential title decider and match of the year. A scintillating United victory in the Community Shield only fanned the flames, and it seems like each successive point earned in the league was building up to this one match.
The Manchester derby has always been a fiery and testy affair. But because this year is seen as the first time the blue half of Manchester has a legitimate chance at the title in a long while, and Manchester United has been so dominant in the league so far, anticipation for the clash is at an all-time high.
But even beyond the usual bluster that surrounds the derby, this one features an added layer of intrigue. Not only do we have the top two teams in the league facing off, we also have the top two scorers in Wayne Rooney and Sergio Aguero looking to stamp their respective authorities on the game.
The two strikers are arguably the current best players in the league at the moment, scoring seemingly at will. Rooney and Aguero have nine and eight goals, respectively, to their names, and they will be looking at this fixture to pad those totals.
But in a battle of titanic teams and talismanic players, which man will reign supreme?
Will it be the diminutive but stocky Argentine who will dominate, the man whom Lionel Messi has said possesses "immense power, strength and an incredible work ethic?" On a team that is currently top of the table, Aguero is certainly proving worthy of the accolades being showered upon him.
He is definitely going to be a handful for anyone Sir Alex Ferguson assigns to cover him, and United fans will be hoping that the job will fall to Nemanja Vidic rather than to the less imposing Jonny Evans.
But for this match, if I'm choosing between the Argentine and the Englishman, I'm laying my hat on Rooney to run riot.
A lot of the adjectives that apply to Aguero also apply to Rooney. They're both strong, fast and industrious, with clinical finishing ability. But beyond the skills that each brings to a game, there are two points that lead me to believe that this is Rooney's game.
First of all, Rooney is a man with something to prove, now more than ever. After the debacle with the English national team, Rooney is under the microscope yet again, ensuring that many people will be brushing aside his heroic start to the season.
Rooney has two options now. He can either shrink away from the spotlight and wither, as he almost did after the World Cup, or he can rise to the occasion and prove the naysayers wrong.
This season, he has shown his pride and his leadership. I think that Rooney has matured enough that those elements are not going to go away. In fact, his performance this week in the Champion's League showed a player cool under pressure and determined to prove that the England blip was just that—a blip.
With memories of THAT bicycle kick that he scored last year hanging over his head, look for Rooney to step his game up for the derby.
The second point to consider is Manchester United's system to date.
Currently, United play with essentially four attackers and two midfielders in the middle of the park. There has been much debate over just who those two midfielders should be, but in the first few games of the season it has been a team of Tom Cleverley and Anderson patrolling the center.
On either side of them, United deploys its wingers—Ashley Young on the left and Nani on the right.
Between the two wingers, just ahead of the midfielders and before the target striker (either Danny Welbeck or Javier Hernandez), lies Rooney in the centre-forward/second striker role.
While the personnel around him sometimes changes, make no mistake: the system revolves around Rooney.
He is the crux on which the United attack often rests, being the link between the midfielders and the wingers, the wingers and the striker, the midfielders and the striker, and so on. The offense flows through him, and often ends with him as well.
When Rooney is not in the side, the United attack is completely different. It may still be effective, but not quite the same.
Looking at the balance of play over the course of the season, it looks like the United side is almost built around Rooney, purposefully designed to both get the best out of him and ensure that he brings out the best in his teammates.
Aguero is a valuable part of his side's offense, but it is an offense that has David Silva and Samir Nasri pulling the strings, not him.
And on that basis, because Rooney is a man with something to prove, because he is a man on whom the foundation of his side's attack rests, I'm looking at him to dominate the field for United, win or lose.