Look away, there’s nothing to see here. Certainly, of all the emotions felt by Manchester United supporters over the past year, there has been a common response to Manchester City’s 7-1 aggregate Premier League double over Sir Alex Ferguson’s men last season. Six points that swung the title towards Eastlands and opened a new dawn in English football.
Yet, as the cliché goes, while getting to the top may have been one billion pounds hard for City, Roberto Mancini’s men are finding out that staying there is somewhat more troublesome. Mancini’s obsessive need to tinker with a successful formula, and a succession of draws on the road, has left City trailing United heading into this weekend’s derby.
Strange season though – one in which Ferguson’s side has rarely found a consistent level, but leads the Premier League by three points. Victory, however unlikely given City’s still imperious home record, will leave United in a commanding position heading into the Christmas programme.
Ferguson will not count the points secure though – not with United’s defensive troubles as they are. The Reds have shipped 21 goals in the league this season and the leaky back-four leaves Ferguson in a quandary; trust in his strikers’ form and attack an uncertain Blues, or retrench into the defensive mentality that so backfired at Eastlands last April?
Either way, it is set to be another definitive weekend in the title race – one in which United could stretch a lead or cede control to the ever noisier neighbours.
“Challenges are what we’re made of,” said Ferguson ahead of the 164th Manchester derby.
“I’ve been lucky that, in my time here, I’ve been involved with great competitions against individual teams: Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and now City. Chelsea did it and we recognised it immediately. What they did well was start seasons quickly. They had almost gone by the time we got to October. We couldn’t play catch up with them – we never got near them.
“So we changed our programme in pre-season and made sure we started the season correctly. In that third season we did that and we won the league. That’s the great thing about this club. We can accept challenges and we don’t run from them.”
City’s investment has changed the landscape of English football, but Sunday’s match will, as ever, be won and lost in the details. Such as defending with something approaching the quality of potential champions. Ferguson’s outfit certainly cannot defend as poorly as it did at Reading and hope to take anything from the weekend’s game. Nor, indeed, the season if that “Cartoon Cavalcade” performance is repeated too often.
However, the Scot’s side heads into the match with injuries afflicting a quartet of midfielders – Antonio Valencia, Nani, Anderson, and Tom Cleverley – leaving options limited. This may leave Sir Alex to deploy another narrow midfield, or find a formation with plenty of square pegs in far too many round holes.
Meanwhile, captain Nemanja Vidić is unlikely to play despite weekend press reports to the contrary. The giant Serbian has appeared in around a dozen games over the past year after suffering two serious knee injuries.
“On the injury front, Tom Cleverley will have a scan this morning and we’ll see what he’s like,” confirmed Sir Alex. “It’s his calf, which is always a worry, but we’ll see. Nani and Valencia are still out. It will be a few weeks with them.
“I thought Kagawa may have done enough to make the bench on Wednesday but no, he’s well short. But I don’t think he’ll be available until the Sunderland game. Vidić has certainly been doing well in training but I think the game on Sunday is a bit soon for him. I know we’ve got a few injuries at the moment but we’ve got a big strong squad of players.”
Meanwhile, Mancini could welcome back playmaker David Silva despite the Spaniard missing Wednesday’s Champions League defeat to Borussia Dortmund. Gael Clichy and James Milner also return to the Blues’ squad.
But the Italian’s problems have little to do with injuries and much more to a dysfunctional forward unit that has scored less frequently than United this season. Title-winning forward Sergio Agüero has seven goals in all competitions this season, but Edin Džeko, Carlos Tevez and Mario Ballotelli have each struggled to justify almost £100 million aggregate outlay.
“Our season depends on our strikers,” Mancini admitted on Friday.
“We need to improve the output from our strikers. Our problem is our strikers. Usually when you have four strikers, two or three of them are not scoring but one is. At the moment we have four strikers who can’t score. We don’t have the same quality this season that we showed in the first 15 games of last season”.
It is an observation that offers United hope of extracting a modicum of revenge for last season’s double league defeat. Victory would not only bring league title 20 a step closer, but enable Reds worldwide to forget the horrors of last season.
Manchester City v Manchester United – Premier League, Eastlands – Sunday 9 December 2012, 1.30pm
City (4-4-2): Hart; Maicon, Kompany, Nastasic, Zabaletta; Nasri, Y Touré, Barry, Silva; Tevez, Agüero. Subs from: Pantilimon, Wright, Lescott, Clichy, García, K Touré, Razak, Sinclair, Tchuimeni-Nimley, Dzeko.
United (4-4-2): De Gea; Rafael, Evans, Ferdinand, Evra; Fletcher; Carrick, Scholes; Rooney; van Persie, Welbeck. Subs from: Lindegaard, Wootton, Smalling, Buttner, Jones, Young, Cleverley, Powell, Giggs, Hernandez.
Referee: M Atkinson
Assistants: P Kirkup, S Burt
Fourth official: M Clattenburg.
Head to Head
Last 10: City 4, United 5, Draw 1
Overall: City 45, United 68, Draw 50
- United must recover from a physically demanding game at Reading and a mid-week Champions League fixture – the Reds covered more ground against Reading than in any other game this season, clocking up 66.29 miles;
- Rooney’s 6.96 miles was the second highest by an individual United player this season;
- van Persie’s goal was his 10th in the Premier League this season, making the Dutchman the league’s joint top goal scorer;
- Of the four players sharing that honour van Persie has required the second fewest shots at goal – 46 – while Luis Suarez has taken 80, Demba Ba 53, and Michu just 39;
- Rooney’s goal was his fourth of the having taken 35 shots at goal with 65.7 per cent accuracy;
- Rooney’s team mate Chicarito, meanwhile, has the best shots per goal ratio of any striker in the derby, taking just three shots per goal;
- United’s problems at the back may have been largely driven by form and fitness of key players, although Rafael da Silva can take comfort from his contribution – 44 tackles, winning 24, 13 clearances, 22 interceptions and one block;
- City, meanwhile, remain the only unbeaten team in the league this season after a tough 1-1 draw against Everton last weekend;
- Tevez’ penalty was his seventh goal of the season, with one scored every 152 minutes and 17 seconds at 6.7 shots per goal;
- At the other end City has conceded just 11 goals compared to United’s 21, in part because of Matija Nastasic’s form since coming into the side – the Servian has averaged a defensive contribution once every 19 minutes and 16 seconds including 12 attempted tackles, five clearances, 12 interceptions and four blocks;
- City captain Vincent Kompany has contributed 107 defensive interventions so far this season, including 50 attempted tackles, with 52 per cent won, 19 clearances, 33 interceptions and five blocks;
- Yay Touré has completed more passes in the opposition half than any other player in the league, with 657, averaging one every 2 minutes and 12 seconds, while Michael Carrick has completed 518, at one every 2 minutes 38 seconds, according to the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index.