It’s being billed by some as the biggest game in Premier League history, and while that may be a statement coated in hyperbole, there’s no doubting that Monday’s Manchester Derby is massive in the context of this season.
Just a fortnight ago it looked like City had blown their chances of claiming their first league title since 1968 but slip ups from United with a defeat away to Wigan and a draw at home to Everton means the gap is now back to just three points.
The two meetings between the sides so far this season, in the league back in October and in the FA Cup in January, yielded a massive 12 goals and neutrals will be hoping for something of the same at the Etihad Stadium.
Despite stating as recently as January that Liverpool remain United’s biggest rivals, Sir Alex Ferguson has conceded that right now it is City who now pose the biggest threat to his team.
“City are not going away,” he said.
“They are our direct opponents now. At this moment in time this supersedes the Liverpool games.”
The return of Carlos Tevez following his stint in the wilderness has coincided with a good run of form for City who have bagged the maximum nine points from their last three games, including a thumping 6-1 win away to Norwich City in which the Argentine helped himself to a hattrick.
Tevez’s understanding with his counterpart Sergio Aguero will be key to City’s chances of turning over United who will be relying on centre halves Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans to be at their best.
Evans has enjoyed an excellent season so far, with Ferguson going so far as to hail him as the “best defender in the country” recently.
“His form has been absolutely consistent over the past few months since he became a regular,” said Ferguson earlier this month.
“Jonny Evans has always had fantastic ability, even as a kid. He was very talented as a boy when he came over here from Ireland at 12 years of age. We were never quite sure if he was going to be a midfield player or a centre-back – he was exceptionally talented but gangly with physical issues growing up.
“We had him out on loan with Antwerp and Sunderland and now we are seeing the value of nurturing him. With his height and pace and ability on the ball, he is really outstanding.”
A lot has been made of City boss Roberto Mancini’s ‘mind games’ in recent weeks with the Italian writing off his side’s chances of winning the title at every opportunity, however Yaya Toure is grateful of the second opportunity afforded to them by United.
“We now have a second chance and I hope we take it because it is very important for us,” he said.
“That is why I come to City, to make history with the club and for us to win this competition would be fantastic.”
Midlands-based referee Andre Marriner will officiate the game.
City have no significant injury worries as the ultimate opinion splitter Mario Balotelli returns from suspension following his red card against Arsenal. If Mancini has any sense he will have Balotelli nowhere near this fixture even though he is very much a match winner on his day as we saw in the 6-1 drubbing. However, this is game where there can be no stupid red cards or tantrums so playing the Italian would be too risky.
At right back, Pablo Zabaleta has been his reliable self lately but the pace of Micah Richards should see the Englishman start. In midfield, City will play a ‘clogger’ with Gareth Barry usually the preferred choice, though Nigel De Jong has featured a lot more recently and is more than capable of doing the job in front of the back four.
Samir Nasri picked up the club’s most recent Player of the Month award and will provide the creativity along with David Silva, with the two little Argentines leading the line. A potential outfield substitutes list of Balotelli, Edin Dzeko, Adam Johnson, Aleksandar Kolarov, De Jong/Barry and James Milner shows the quality depth that City continue to enjoy.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s approach to this game will be interesting and he will no doubt be tempted to play with two strikers given the great partnership that has been forged between Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck. However, a midfield of Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick was badly overrun at home to Everton last week so don’t be surprised to see Ryan Giggs or even Park Ji Sung forming part of a central trio.
Out wide, Nani made an impressive return to the starting lineup in the 4-4 draw and he should continue to get the nod over Ashley Young with Antonio Valencia continuing on the right. At the back, Rafael remains a huge weak link and was badly exposed by Steven Pienaar for Everton’s late equaliser at Old Trafford. Ferguson may be tempted to bring either of the most physically imposing Phil Jones or Chris Smalling into the team instead of the Brazilian.
Manchester City – Yaya Toure
People who watch City sporadically are guilty of placing Toure on the sort of pedestal that goes with calls for Team of the Year nominations and individual awards. However, those of us who see the Ivorian week in, week out know that he is guilty of blowing hot and cold in equal spurts. On his day Yaya is unplayable with powerful runs from midfield and an eye for goal so it’s imperative that he is switched on come game time. If he isn’t then City will be left with an ineffective passenger, as has happened before on more than one occasion.
Manchester United – Wayne Rooney
According to some people, Rooney is having an average season. In fact, 26 league goals is a fantastic return and certainly suggests anything but medicrity. Sir Alex Ferguson’s set up will dictate which Rooney we see. If United line up on a 4-5-1 then Rooney will lead the line and sit on Kompany and Lescott for the duration, but if Fergie opts to partner him with Welbeck in a 4-4-2 then expect Rooney to drop deep to help out in midfield. For me the latter is a more dangerous prospect as I think Rooney is more dangerous coming from deep either with a late run into the box to meet a cross like he did in the FA Cup in January, or with the ball at his feet running at defenders.
City simply have to win, especially given that they have two trickier fixtures left afterwards and it’s unlikely that United will drop points against either Swansea or Sunderland. Having said that, I think Ferguson will set United up as a solid unit and the game will finish as a 1-1 draw with Aguero and Rooney on the scoresheet.
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