It’s been a lean year in Manchester. Whether Red or Sky Blue, struggles abound in England’s North-West. Rivals for more than a century, the Premier League’s two most financially powerful clubs share the common trait of suffering through on-the-field issues that are not easily fixed. For all the money on show neither side seems capable of buying its way up the table, nor capturing fourth place and with it the Champions League.
It wasn’t so long ago that English football was in awe of Manchester’s clubs. For a time the city had legitimate claim to being the world’s capital of football, with two powerhouse clubs trading titles for four years. The United-City rivalry has been at the centre of some of the best conclusions to a Premier League season in recent years, yet, as Manchester United prepares to travel across town to face neighbours City on Sunday, the fixture is hardly talk of the town, let alone the nation.
Louis van Gaal has undertaken ‘projects’ at some of the biggest clubs in the world. His popularity is certainly not universal at any of them, but there’s no doubt that the Dutchman left his mark at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and now Manchester United. There’s no denying Van Gaal has provided the foundations on which some of those clubs stand today.
Pep Guardiola has followed in Van Gaal’s footsteps, and indeed improved on them, in Catalunya and Bavaria. Could lightning strike a third time in Manchester? It certainly should.
With Guardiola set to announce his plans for 2016 and beyond next week, rumours abound as to where the Spaniard will set sail next. England is the consensus, with the Manchester clubs seemingly favourites despite Jose Mourinho’s dismissal at Chelsea this week.
Questions remain, of course. Would Pep’s style adapt to English football; could he revolutionise the game in the Premier League as he has in Spain and Germany?
Yet, there’s the common misconception that Guardiola shares Van Gaal’s love of possession and, frankly, possession for the sake of it. Certainly, passing teams to death is the perception that supporters and analysts have gained when watching United this season. Leading the league in sideways pass percentage, backwards pass percentage and, of course, possession itself, United dominates the ball, but not the league table. In truth, the man who is leading Munich to another Bundesliga title shares little of that ideal.
“I loathe all that passing for the sake of it,” he said last year. “All that tiki-taka. It’s so much rubbish and has no purpose. You have to pass the ball with a clear intention, with the aim of making it into the opposition’s goal.
“It’s not about passing for the sake of it. Don’t believe what people say. Barça didn’t do tiki-taka! It’s completely made up! Don’t believe a word of it!”
Guardiola’s Catalan side was a ruthless attacking outfit whose effortless possession of the ball cut up almost every opponent. Rather than Van Gaal’s sometimes pedestrian passing, the Spaniard’s version of the Blaugrana was arguably the best side of the modern era. Barça moved the ball quickly – United the victim in two breathtaking displays in the 2009 and 2011 Champions League finals.
“In all team sports, the secret is to overload one side of the pitch so that the opponent must tilt its own defence to cope,” Pep explained. “You overload on one side and draw them in so that they leave the other side weak. And when we’ve done all that, we attack and score from the other side.
“That’s why you have to pass the ball, but only if you’re doing it with a clear intention. It’s only to overload the opponent, to draw them in and then to hit them with the sucker punch. That’s what our game needs to be. Nothing to do with tiki-taka.”
In May of 2011 Guardiola sat in the stands watching United in the Champions League Semi-Finals. Weeks later his side would destroy the Red Devils in the final.
“I like this atmosphere. I could see myself coaching here one day,” he told friend Manuel Estiarte as he watched United sweep aside Schalke. The sentiment was echoed by journalist Graham Hunter this week, one of the more credible sources of news in Spain. Hunter is adamant that Guardiola wants to try his hand managing United after a transfer to Old Trafford fell through late in his playing career.
“If the cards fall his way, his wish is to sample life at Manchester United for a variety of reasons,” said Hunter. “The move didn’t happen but when he’s come back to Manchester subsequently he’s looked at the Old Trafford atmosphere, the legends and he has felt ‘this is right for me’.”
This chips, it seems, could fall United’s way. Unfortunately for those who would like to see Guardiola arrive at United there are many more factors at play, and football is rarely that simple, especially when it comes to the Reds.
The Citizens’ move for Pep has been the “worst kept secret in football” for some time now. That said, with admirers from the rest of England’s giants also in play, perhaps Guardiola’s move to the Etihad is no longer so certain. City has always felt the presence of Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain in the management hierarchy gives the club an inside track in the pursuit of their man. The Blues’ unlimited chequebook and star-studded squad has to appeal, and the club has proven in recent times that it has a little more patience with managerial appointments. There’s certainly a strong chance that a deal may already be in place.
Mourinho’s departure from the Blues, with Guardiola’s future set to be announced, could be coincidental or perfectly timed. Chelsea’s admiration is long-standing, with Roman Abramovich rumoured to have dreamt that his side might one day resemble the footballing beauty of Barcelona in Pep’s pomp.
However, the Chelsea job does not offer the stability of others – since 2004 no manager has lasted at the club more than three years, while nine coaches in eight seasons is something of an embarrassing track record.
The north Londoners represent a dark horse in this race. Guardiola’s attractive football, sense of style, and knowledge of culture and history fits well with Arsenal’s proposition. Arsene Wenger’s time at the club is surely winding down, and the Gunners would certainly consider making his retirement date official if it meant landing the Spaniard. Arsenal doesn’t possess the financial clout of other contenders, but it’s a club with a money-making new stadium, while the new Premier League TV deal offers incredible spending power. Guardiola’s probable departure from Munich could have come at the perfect time.
Despite the debate about United’s incumbent manager and playing squad, almost anyone with an opinion on the situation agrees that the club has its share of problems. Rumours about the Dutchman’s future are rife, and there is no doubt that Van Gaal is under serious pressure to deliver results. Goals have dried up and the team is now without a win in the past five games.
Still, the club seems to be standing by the manager and is prepared to back him in the market in January. Yet, a growing section of the fanbase has already turned on Van Gaal and, if rumours are true, so have some in his playing squad.
Players are physically exhausted by the training regime, whilst some feel their talents are stifled by Van Gaal’s tactics. Ed Woodward has briefed that the club is prepared to back him with continued spending, but with every passing result the value of the investment in such bland performances comes into question.
Woodward has also briefed that he believes Guardiola’s future is already determined – one factor, perhaps, why the club is backing Van Gaal so strongly. Yet, with Carlo Ancelotti, Mourinho and potentially Guardiola on the market this summer, the club has some forward thinking to undertake if it is serious about progressing back into the élite.
Guardiola would certainly improve on the foundations the Dutchman has created. The Spaniard’s football would be a vast improvement, while Pep offers the promise of attracting high-calibre players.
Van Gaal’s progress has been slower than expected, albeit through a significant rebuild. But the club would surely be remiss not to consider the future. The right decision isn’t always clear, but to many Guardiola’s capture represents a no brainer.
Van Gaal has been a terrific manager over the past quarter-century; Guardiola is an upgrade.United cannot afford to miss out on his services for a second time.
Manchester United’s six-game winning streak – in the Premier League at least – is remarkable for many reasons. Not least because this is now a United side high on belief, quick in the pass and effortlessly creative – three qualities that Louis van Gaal’s side has infrequently demonstrated this season. And yet, save for defeat against Arsenal in the FA Cup, United’s winning streak has ushered in a bold new era at United. Sunday’s victory over Manchester City emphasised United’s metamorphosis; next weekend’s trip to Chelsea could well confirm the club’s rebirth.
City’s defeat is a case in point. It is not just that Van Gaal’s side dominated – City’s two Sergio Agüero goals flattered the visitors – but that United secured three points with such effortless grace. With more clinical finishing the home side could have bettered the six goals City infamously scored at Old Trafford in October 2011. Van Gaal’s side not only wanted victory more, but backed up desire with outstanding execution.
The Blues dished out humiliating defeat to United too often in recent seasons. Not least four Premier League victories in a row before Sunday and an aggregated scoreline in that period of 10 goals to two. That’s to say little of the aforementioned six scored against 10-man United four years ago.
This period of domination has followed City’s vast expenditure in the transfer market – one that has also fuelled two Premier League titles over the past three seasons. By contrast United’s decline was slow and then very quick – first starved of funds under the Glazer family’s ownership and then decimated by David Moyes ineptitude. Game after what seemed to be too many games City’s midfield bullied a meek United offering.
There was none of that on Sunday though, with United out-passing, thinking and working City. This was both a tactical masterclass by Van Gaal and an expression of a work-ethic that always has supporters on their feet.
In fact, just as City seemed to put aside recent poor form to start brightly, United once again demonstrated the strength of mental fortitude that Moyes so acutely destroyed and Van Gaal has rebuilt. After nine minutes the Blues were on top, but it says much that City never had it so good again. Save for Agüero’s late goal, Van Gaal’s side remained dominant to the last.
Little wonder Van Gaal was delighted with victory – an emphatic result and a performance that thoroughly vindicates the Dutchman’s methods. Special praise too for the strength of character to come back from Agüero’s early strike.
“We have showed that often,” said Van Gaal on United’s recovery. “I have more than once given compliments to my players about that because, in all the matches, we are going until the end with a great spirit and we have shown that against City.
“We didn’t start so well, Manchester City had the better start, but then we came back into the game because of the assist of David De Gea, more or less, for the first goal for Ashley Young. Then we gained confidence and we performed our game-plan much more. In the second half, we played very well with a lot of pace in our game. I was very pleased with the second half.”
Technically the home side was far superior too. While Juan Mata and Ander Herrera controlled the game with a nuanced range of passing from the right, it was Ashley Young and Marouane Fellaini that earned praise for taking full advantage of City’s weaknesses down United’s left. Michael Carrick was again outstanding as United’s deep-lying creative instigator.
Young’s pace and direct running seemingly compliment the out-ball offered by Fellaini. The Belgian won nine headers on Sunday, with United deploying the long-ball 15 per cent of the time – a ratio that is high in comparison to other Champions League chasing sides. Yet, in contrast to the aimless long-balls that too often creeped into United’s game during the winter, this time the Reds exploited City’s lack of height at full-back and failure to adequately cover the channels.
“Ashley was Man of the Match and I think that was right,” confirmed Van Gaal in the aftermath. “If I had to choose, I would have chosen him. Also Fellaini is very important in our game-plan and I’m very pleased that he plays for Manchester United and no-one else.”
The victory leaves United four points ahead of City with just six games to play and 11 beyond Liverpool. Champions League football next season is almost guaranteed, although United will benefit much from finishing ahead of City, Arsenal or both to avoid an early-season play-off next August. Second or third would also earn United a healthier share of England’s media pool from European games – an incentive for the bean counters as much as the ego.
Momentum also counts for much. United has it, of course, although games against Chelsea, Everton, Crystal Palace and Arsenal offer no guarantee of points. After all, three of those games come away from the safety of Old Trafford, where United has gained 43 of 65 points this season.
The first of that sequence is against Chelsea next weekend. Indeed, United’s trip to Stanford Bridge is perhaps the truest barometer of progression. The Reds’ improvement in the past two months under Van Gaal has been dramatic, but the Londoners are seven points clear for a reason and superbly effective at home. José Mourniho’s side is yet to lose at Stamford Bridge in the league this season and boasts both the best home record and best home defensive record.
Van Gaal’s team is also unlikely to enjoy the bulk of possession next Saturday – a stat recorded at more than 55 per cent against City – nor control midfield so easily. After all, Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic advance a formidable pairing, especially at home. United will, however, benefit from Diego Costa’s absence, while understudy Loïc Remy is also doubtful with injury.
In the big picture Saturday’s game may count for little. Few believe Chelsea will lose the title now, nor that Liverpool will make up the 12 points required on United over the next six games. Yet, there is that momentum thing again. Victory at Stamford Bridge might just be a season-defining statement ahead of what is likely to be another busy transfer window.
Then there is the small matter of supporters’ pride. Reds have enjoyed just two victories at Stamford Bridge in the past decade. With one demon slain last Sunday, United’s bête noire of the Premier League era lies in wait. Van Gaal will have little doubt that United’s fans are owed a result in the capital.
“I am very pleased for the fans of course, because they have supported us when the results were not so good and now they are very good,” concluded Van Gaal on Sunday. “I’m very happy for the fans that they can walk through the streets without being embarrassed! They can go on the streets, hat up, and they can say now ‘we are, this year, the better team’.”
United’s performance next weekend may well add to that feeling.
This has not been a kind fixture for Manchester United fans of late. After all, the Blues from east of the city have come to dominate, with Abu Dhabi’s riches underpinning four victories in a row and six in the past 10 league matches between these sides. It is a record that few United supporters can stomach, let alone a manager who oversaw defeat at Eastlands earlier this season. Little wonder Louis van Gaal “dreams” of derby victory on Sunday – a win that would give United a four point Premier League margin over the Blues with the clock ticking down on the race for European football.
Indeed, City’s dominance of late – extending to a second Premier League title in three years last May – renders all the more stark the contrasting fortunes in the teams’ form over the past two months. United, emboldened by five Premier League victories in a row, start Sunday’s Old Trafford match as favourites; a rare position in recent years.
City, by contrast, has suffered four league defeats in the past 10; a run of form that almost certainly means a trophyless season and Manuel Pellegrini’s summer dismissal. Such is the way in east Manchester, where the thirst for success is driven by more than £1 billion ploughed into the club by Sheihk Mansour’s family over the past seven years.
Van Gaal, meanwhile, has overcome a poor early season start and a major injury crisis to stamp his mark on this side. For so much of the campaign United has been one of the Premier League’s less inspiring sides – at least of those in the top half. No longer, with the Dutchman’s team enjoying vibrant attacking performances in victory over Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa in the past month. It is a run of form that has supporters thinking of topping the Blues come May, let alone Sunday.
“I dream of it,” said the veteran coach. “Every player shall dream of victory. I have been thinking with my staff and my players already for many days about how we have to beat Manchester City. You are always in that process of how to beat your next opponent.
“You want to win because it is a big step in the table. When you win, third place is reachable and months ago nobody was thinking we could do it. Third position in the table is also good because you have certainly qualified for the Champions League and we would do better than the goal we set in pre-season.”
It is dream shared by United fans too long usurped by City’s new-found dominance. The Blues have not only won four of these fixtures on the bounce, but by an aggregate score of 10 goals to United’s two. For a club of United’s standing it is not an edifying record.
“When you are walking the streets of Manchester everybody is talking about the derby and also the players,” added Van Gaal. “They understand the meaning of a Manchester United victory over Manchester City. They know and I know it, so it’s very important. I don’t have time to visit the city so much. But when I’m there, the fans are talking about the derby. In football you play for the fans and I hope we can give our fans the victory.”
United’s standing as favourites is based on strong form over the past two months and a clean bill of squad health, save for Robin van Persie’s ongoing ankle injury. That problem will keep the Dutchman out of Sunday’s fixture, while Luke Shaw is not yet fit enough to return. Johnny Evans serves the fifth of a six-match suspension, but Chris Smalling should be available. It would be a chance, perhaps, for the Englishman to redeem the bone-headed red card received in the fixture at the Etihad Stadium earlier this season.
Elsewhere, the manager is likely to field a similar side to the one that secured victory against Villa last weekend, with Daley Blind again deputising at left-back, with Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Marouanne Fellani and Michael Carrick deployed as an in-form midfield quintet.
Meanwhile, Van Gaal offered no guarantees that Angel di Maria will return despite A positive substitute performance against Villa. The Argentinian may yet be recalled at Ashley Young’s expense, although the Englishman’s good form this season suggests otherwise. Still, it is this competition for places that is driving higher standards, claims the Dutchman.
“Not only Angel Di Maria, but every player who is training in the first squad are pushing because they want to do their utmost. I played 11 against 11 today and the team in white was very good. The white team was not the basic line-up, so they are pushing always and I like that. I said that to all of the players, that I like the fighting spirit of every one of them.”
Meanwhile, Pellegrini faces anything but certainty. Dumped out of the Champions League, with recent defeats against Crystal Palace and Burnley effectively ending the Blues’ title defence, City’s campaign has imploded during February and March. Another European failure compounding domestic complacency it would appear.
On the pitch Pellegrini may be without captain Vincent Kompany, who suffered a hamstring injury against Palace on Monday. The Belgian will face a late fitness test before a final selection is decision is made on the out-of-form defender. Pellegrini may also drop Eden Dzeko, with the Bosnian having scored just four goals this season – two coming in his past 22 games for the club.
Still, Kompany has talked a good game this week, despite City’s poor form. The defender claims that the derby has come at the right time for the struggling Blues to correct a run of poor results.
“It’s a good moment to go into a derby,” said the 29-year-old. “It’s the perfect place for us to go and try to rectify what we’ve had. A derby is a derby. It doesn’t matter what place you are in the league, it’s a derby. My only concern is we get back to our best form. I think it’s our general form that we have to improve. I’ve learnt from the past seasons as well that finishing a season strongly can have an impact on your next season as well.”
The same can be said for United – victory will solidify third-place, with second very much on the agenda at Old Trafford. And while second may be “nowhere” it will prove to be a vast improvement on seventh under David Moyes. Perhaps even momentum for a title challenge next season.
First, however, the derby. Talk of the title can wait, but supporters certainly demand better than a fifth defeat to City in a row. Much better.
United (4-1-4-1): De Gea; Valencia, Smalling, Rojo, Blind; Carrick; Herrera, Mata, Fellaini, Young; Rooney
City (4-4-2): Hart; Zabaletta, Demichelis, Kompany, Clichy; Milner, Touré, Fernandinho, Silva, Navas; Agüero
United: Valdes, Rafael, McNair, Jones, Shaw, Blackett, Di Maria, Januzaj, Wilson, Falcao
City (4-5-1): Caballero, Sagna, Mangala, Kolarov, Lampard, Nasri, Fernando, Dzeko
United 69 – Draw 50 – City 49
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Assistants: S Beck, J Collin
Fourth Official: J Moss
United 1-1 City
£1 bet club
1-1 at HT @ 13/2
Running total: £11.50 up!
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It has been too long since Manchester United started a local derby, if not favourites, then in better morale than the crosstown neighbours City. Indeed, for much of the 122 year history of this game it has been United and not the Blues that has been the preeminent force. Thanks to seemingly unlimited riches City has secured two Premier League titles in recent years, although not for the first time is making a ham-fisted attempt at retaining the crown. One more twist after 167 fixtures between these sides.
Manchester United 4 – 1 Manchester City, 31 August, 1957
For many of the Babes this was the final Old Trafford derby before the Munich disaster the following February. Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor, Johnny Berry and Dennis Viollet scored as United began the season in fine form. The Reds completed a fifth English league title the following May, but for Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, David Pegg, Liam Whelan, Edwards and Taylor this was the last ever home derby.
Manchester City 3 – 3 Manchester United, 6 November, 1971
Super Sammy McIlroy scored on his United début against City’s best side in living memory. Brian Kidd and John Aston also netted for the Reds in a classic early ’70s encounter. Franny Lee, doing what Franny Lee did best, dived to win City a penalty as the Blues came back from two down and 3-2 behind to earn a draw at Maine Road.
Manchester City 3 – 3 Manchester United, Maine Road, 27 October, 1990
Another three-all draw in a classic early ’90s match at Maine Road. City began at pace and David White’s double looked to have secured the points for Howard Kendall’s outfit before Mark Hughes countered for United. Colin Hendry added a third for City before Brian ‘Choccy’ McClair scored twice for United to grab a draw in a breathless match.
Manchester City 2 – 3 Manchester United, Maine Road, 1993
One of United’s greatest ever comebacks – this time in City’s backyard. Trailing by two thanks to a Nial Quinn brace, United returned with strikes from Eric Cantona and Roy Keane, winning it in the final minute of the match. More than 3,000 United supporters went berserk. Sweet.
Manchester United 5 – 0 Manchester City, Old Trafford, 1994
With that 1989 match at Maine Road still all too fresh in supporters’ minds, United’s flying Russian winger Andrei Kanchelskis went on the rampage, scoring an Old Trafford hat-trick. It was the match that finally stopped five years of Blue Nose crowing, allowing right-minded United folk to raise their chins once again!
Manchester United 1 – 1 Manchester City, Old Trafford, 2001
Roy Keane’s long running feud with the Norwegian Alfe-Inge Haarland led to this horror tackle in 2001. Keane saw red and was banned for three matches. Keane’s biography later intimated that the Irishman sought to hurt his opponent, a claim biographer Eamonn Dunphy made firm at an FA inquiry. It cost Keane a further five match ban and £150,000 fine. Keane denied it had the row hasn’t stopped since.
Manchester United 4 – 3 Manchester City, Old Trafford, 2009
There have been few more dramatic winners than Michael Owen’s wonderful 96th minute strike from Ryan Giggs’ pass. City boss Mark Hughes’ moaned for years about the amount of injury time added on dominated the headlines, but Owen’s dramatic winner secured the points. Just about the only decent thing the striker did at Old Trafford in three years.
Manchester United 2 – 1 Manchester City, Old Trafford, 2011
If Owen’s winner was the most dramatic, Wayne Rooney’s overhead two years’ later might just have been the most spectacular. The goal, voted the second best in the world during 2011, was truly the stuff of schoolboy dreams. Such a shame it was bracketed by two transfer requests.
Manchester City 2 Manchester United, 2012
There was no little irony in Robin van Persie’s late winner after Roberto Mancini had made it so clear that he wanted to sign the former Arsenal captain. United led through Rooney’s double, only for City to draw level by the 86th minute. Cue the finest end to a Manchester derby debut with Van Persie scoring a free-kick in the 92nd minute.
And some of the worst of…
Manchester United 0-1 Manchester City, 1974
The result that effectively relegated United with a game to go in the league season and the goal was scored by former Red Denis Law of all players. Law’s backheel was his last touch of the game – or in the English First Division. It was hard to know who was more heartbroken: the Scotsman or his former hero-worshipers on the Stretford End.
Manchester City 5-1 Manchester United, 1989
After a three year hiatus, with City languishing in the Second Division, the derby brought one of the most dramatic results in the near 100 years of fixtures between these sides. David Oldfield scored twice, with Trevor Morley, Ian Bishop, and Andy Hinchcliffe adding a miserable fifth. If anything Maine Road Massacre inspired United to more than two decades of success, often at City’s expense. A defining moment, but not as Blues had hoped.
Manchester United 1 Manchester City 6, 2011
Mario Bellotelli pondered the question “Why always me?” United fans had far darker thoughts, after all the Reds hadn’t lost so heavily at Old Trafford for more than fifty years – and this time to unthinkable opponents. Ballotelli scored twice, as did Edin Dzeko, with further goals coming from Sergio Aguero and David Silva. In truth United gifted City three late goals, but there is no doubt this proved to be a pivotal match, with City claiming the title by eight points the following May.
How did the narrative get so turned around? The derby has not often been pleasant viewing for Manchester United supporters in recent seasons, with City not only racking up some embarrassingly weighty victories, but securing two Premier League titles in the past three years. Yet, it is not obvious that the Blues enter the Sunday lunchtime fixture at the Etihad as favourites. Not a statement that could have been predicted even a fortnight ago.
In truth City boasts all the tools to take United apart: a spine of Vincent Kompany, Yaya Touré, Fernandinho and Sergio Aguero that offers the power, movement and height to take advantage of United’s key weaknesses. On paper it remains an unfair match-up. Yet, derbies are never played out in theory alone and – no more than perception perhaps – it is United that has all the momentum going into this weekend.
After all Robin van Persie’s wildly celebrated 95th minute equaliser against Chelsea last Sunday has, as many supporters instinctively understood, sent confidence coursing through the United squad. Louis van Gaal’s side has rarely excelled this season, but it is not often over the past two decades that a home draw has been so significant as the one gained at Old Trafford last Sunday.
The hosts, meanwhile, will be without key player David Silva, while midweek defeat to Newcastle United has compounded an already growing sense that all is not quite right in Manuel Pellegrini’s squad. Last weekend West Ham United secured three Premier League points against the Chilean’s side and City is yet to emerged victorious in the Champions League this season.
Indeed, there is something of City’s last title defence in the recent series of limp performances. It might be wishful thinking on United’s part, but this is a City side that looks far from the commanding outfit that secured last year’s Premier League title.
Still, there is an imbalance in the recent City-United relationship that Old Trafford’s finest seeks to redress. There may not have been a better moment over the past three campaigns for United to take advantage. One for the fans as well as an often embattled team.
“It is one of the 38 matches we have to play but, for the fans, it is unbelievably big as a rivalry,” said Van Gaal.
“I have felt that, also with a lot of the players in the squad. It was good to see that. Everywhere it is the same because the derby is between rivals in the city. We don’t have to accelerate this feeling because it is football and you have to play the game, not only a game with emotion but also in a tactical way. That we are doing, that is how we are preparing.”
On the pitch United will again be without a slew of first team players, although Wayne Rooney returns from suspension and Antonio Valencia is fit enough to make the bench. The Scouser’s reintroduction is likely to mean Juan Mata is dropped, although Van Gaal has a tendency to mix up his tactical outlook on a weekly basis.
Radamel Falcao is not fit after picking up a training ground injury, but Adnan Januzaj could retain his place if Van Gaal retains the 4-2-3-1 system deployed against Chelsea last weekend. That choice may lies in the midfield shape the Dutchman wishes to deploy, with Mata, Marouanne Fellaini, and Ander Herrera perhaps competing for just one spot in the United side despite all the injuries.
“As a coach, you’re always prepared and are used to a lot of injuries but I’m not used to this many injuries,” the Dutchman told MUTV.
“At most clubs I have trained, we have had very few injured players but now I’m here for the first time and we are always having a lot of injuries. This week, we still have seven injuries. I can hardly make a choice as there are so many players we do not have. We don’t know what we are doing wrong.”
The are hardly comforting words after a campaign disrupted by absences. Still, it is Silva that may prove the most pivotal missing player after the Spaniard picked up a knee injury during the midweek Capital One Cup defeat to Newcastle. Meanwhile, Yaya Touré suffered a groin strain in the same match, although the Ivorian is likely to be fit.
With Silva out, Pellegrini could shake up a 4-2-2-2 system that has become predictable in recent weeks, potentially pushing Touré into a more attacking role behind Aguero. That combination will certainly a test a United back-four that has looked anything but comfortable this season. Marcos Rojo and Chris Smalling started against Chelsea, although once again individual errors almost cost the Reds more than the point gained.
Still, City start the match having won five of the last six matches against United in the Premier League, including the last three. Last season the Blues scored seven with just the single United reply. It is a series that no Red is willing to countenance being extended this weekend.
That hope may depend on United being more efficient in front of goal as much as any defensive performance. After all, Van Gaal’s side has scored just three from 41 attempts over the last two games against Chelsea and West Bromwich Albion. Given the attacking riches at the Dutchman’s disposal it is not a good record.
“I hope we can score out of our first chance because we have created a lot of chances against Chelsea,” added Van Gaal.
“I think always in our games that we have played in the Premier League, we didn’t score from our first chance and then it is more easy to win the game. That is our goal, to win this game. We are growing, we are developing ourselves. What we have seen of City in the last matches was not so good. You never know.”
United last won at the Etihad in 2012 – a 3-2 victory secured by Van Persie’s injury time winner. The striker might top his celebration against Chelsea should he repeat that feat. United supporters, meanwhile, will settle for a win of any kind.
City (4-2-3-1): Hart; Zabaleta, Kompany, Mangala, Clichy; Fernandinho, Fernando; Nasri, Touré, Milner; Aguero
United (4-2-3-1): de Gea; Rafael, Smalling, Rojo, Shaw; Blind, Fellaini; Januzaj, Rooney, Di Maria; Van Persie
City: Caballero, Nastasic, Boyata, Sagna, Kolarov, Demichelis, Sinclair, Navas, Dzeko, Jovetic
United: Lindegaard, Blackett, Fletcher, Carrick, Valencia, Anderson, Herrera, Mata, Wilson
City 48 – Draw 50 – United 69
Referee: Michael Oliver
Assistants: S Child, S Burt
Fourth Official: K Friend
City 1-1 United
£1 bet club
Rooney to score first goal in 1-1 draw @ 35/1
Running total: £(-)10
What a difference seven days makes. Sunday week, Manchester United’s season had unravelled and manager David Moyes was living on borrowed time less than a year into the job. Following humiliating submission to Liverpool at Old Trafford even the most patient observers had seemingly drawn a line under the former Everton manager’s time at the club. Little wonder, with Moyes presiding over 12 defeats in all competitions this season amid the worst United campaign for 20 years.
Yet, victories over West Ham United and Olympiakos have contributed to a renewed and even positive atmosphere in Moyes’ camp as United prepare for significant games ahead. The Reds may be far from favourites, but Manchester City arrives at Old Trafford on Tuesday night with the home side finding an improved sense of belief.
Wayne Rooney’s double against the Hammers on Saturday followed a dramatic comeback against Olympiakos on Tuesday to leave United in the quarter final of the Champions League and chasing European qualification next season.
Still, Moyes’ side has failed to beat few teams of note this season; only Arsenal of the Premier League’s top nine teams has succumbed to United this season. Meanwhile, in Europe a pairing with Bayern Munich represents a significant step up in class from those teams already beaten in the competition.
Whatever has already passed this season, these are surely the games on which Moyes must be judged. City and then Bayern are a test not only of Moyes’ tactical acumen, but in a season of distinct mediocrity, also of the Scot’s ability to draw more than the sum of United’s substantial parts.
Judgement will also be passed on the increasingly bullish rhetoric from Moyes this week. If United truly are to be compared with Europe’s best, then the Scot’s team must prove it.
“We’re not as far away as many people would have us and I’ve no doubt it’ll improve,” said the manager.
“We want to show we’re still in there fighting. We want to perform better in the bigger games than we have done, I have no doubt about that. But we don’t go into it any differently – we want to win them all. We go out to win every game – not just the derby.
“In the last couple of games, a lot of the players have stepped up to the plate and performed. But I’m not surprised by that at all – that’s what they’re capable of and I’ve been saying that all year.”
United benefit from few fresh injury concerns. Striker Robin van Persie could miss the season’s remainder with a knee complaint, while defenders Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling also miss City’s visit. However, winger Nani is in the matchday squad after recovering from a serious hamstring problem.
On the pitch Moyes faces questions both in midfield and defence. United set up in an unfamiliar 4-2-3-1 against the Hammers; a formation that enabled Juan Mata to play centrally, and crammed Shinji Kagawa into the side as well. It was a significantly more flexible and nuanced approach.
However, history suggests that come the biggest games Moyes reverts to what he knows best, with both Adnan Januzaj and Antonio Valencia in line for a recall against City, although Mata should again enjoy an outing in his more natural role behind the principle striker.
In defence Moyes is again short-handed. Rio Ferdinand may return, enabling Michael Carrick to return to a more familiar role in central midfield after the Geordie was deployed in central defence against West Ham.
“Michael did great at centre-half,” said Moyes. “He’s played there before so it wasn’t a problem. We even considered putting Marouane Fellaini back there as well, so I think we’ve got people who can do that if we have to.
“We gave Pat a rest but, if we have to, I think we can put him there as well and he would cope manfully. It was great that the squad mucked in and that’s the way it should be, when you are short in areas and it’s all hands to the pumps. We were short on Saturday and Michael certainly played really well.”
Meanwhile, City arrives at Old Trafford hoping to chase down Chelsea at the head of the Premier League. The Londoners have opened up an six point gap on City, although Manuel Pellegrini’s men enjoy three games in hand.
Indeed, it has been a season of mixed fortunes for the Chilean coach. While boasting the strongest squad in the Premier League, City have lost four times on the road in what has been a far from stellar campaign.
In January the Sky Blues were legitimately chasing four trophies, yet defeat to Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup and Barcelona in Europe, together with Chelsea’s form, leaves the phlegmatic Pellegrini looking at the Capital One Cup as potentially the only silverware heading to the Etihad this season. It is scant reward for more than £100 million invested in the transfer market last summer, and over £1 billion since the Abu Dhabi Royal family acquired the club in 2008.
Pellegrini is without Matija Nastasic and Sergio Aguero, but defender Vincent Kompany is available after serving a one-match suspension for the red card picked up against Hull City.
However, the City coached played down City’s tag as favourites the win the game, with the Sky Blues 12 points ahead of United in the Premier league.
“I don’t think we are favourites in any game,” said Pellegrini.
“We are in a good moment but we are playing against a big team in their own stadium, so I don’t think we are the favourites. Of course we always expect to go and win every game but just because Manchester United have had a difficult season it does not mean we are going to win.”
It is ruse that few fans on either side will buy. After all, while City’s lead over in the Premier League is healthy, the Blues have also won four of the last five meetings between the sides, including a 4-1 win at the Etihad Stadium in September.
Manchester United v Manchester City, Premier League, Old Trafford, 7.45pm 25 March 2013
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Jones, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Fellaini, Januzaj; Mata; Rooney
City (4-4-2): Hart; Zabaletta, Kompany, Lescott, Clichy; Milner, Toure, Fernandinho, Silva; Dzeko, Negredo
United: Lindegaard, Buttner, Fletcher, Young, Kagawa, Welbeck, Hernandez
City: Pantilimon, Kolarov, Javi García, Demichelis, Jesús Navas, Boyata, Rodwell, Jovetic
Head to Head
United 69 Draw 50 City 47
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It was a phenomenal effort, arching high over Adrián del Castillo’s head, bouncing once before catching the top of the net at the Bobby Moore end. Neither true volley, nor half, Wayne Rooney’s goal at Upton Park on Saturday is the kind that could spark a season into life.
Yet, David Moyes’ celebration at Rooney’s opener against West Ham United came, seemingly, with as much a sense of vindication as joy on the Scot’s brow. This is what pressure does. Even at the moment of triumph, Moyes emits the stench of a man trapped inside his own fear.
Not so on the bench where Danny Welbeck repeatedly punched the air with the euphoria supporters will instantly recognise.
Still, Manchester United’s victory over the Hammers on Saturday has brought significant relief for Moyes. Following Wednesday’s defeat of Olympiakos at Old Trafford, misguided talk of the Scot’s dismissal – at least prior to the season’s conclusion – surely ends. Indeed, barring comprehensive defeat to Manchester City on Tuesday, followed by humiliation at Bayern Munich’s hands – both are possible of course – Moyes is highly likely to be given a second season in charge.
Yet, there have been so many false dawns these past eight months. After all, while United’s record against mediocre opposition isn’t at all bad – certainly on the road – Arsenal remains the only side in the Premier League’s top nine to have lost to Moyes’ outfit. And that was a very, very bad day at the office for the Gunners.
If truth be told, United’s form under Moyes – class even – will be more accurately reflected in those upcoming games against City and Bayern than in any of the matches over the past week.
Still, the brace of victories has at least restored some confidence in a team badly shaken after the resounding loss to Liverpool at Old Trafford last weekend.
“I think the win on Wednesday against Olympiakos has given us all a big lift and you could see today the confidence running through the team,” said stand-in captain Rooney in the aftermath of Saturday’s victory.
“Today was a good result after last week. Overall we played some good stuff. I thought we defended really well. I thought Michael Carrick at the back, in a difficult game, was outstanding for us so there are a lot of positives.
“There was some great counter-attacking football. That’s in the DNA of Manchester United and today we did that. We caused them a lot of problems.”
Yet, familiar weaknesses will be sternly tested in the weeks to come. Marouanne Fellaini and Darren Fletcher studiously supported United’s makeshift back four at Upton Park, but whatever the central midfield pairing on Tuesday, there is more than one a step up in class against Yaya Touré and the outstanding Brazilian Fernandinho.
Indeed, Robin van Persie’s knee injury should enable the United manager to deploy three central midfielders against City, assuming Fellaini, Michael Carrick and Juan Mata all start on Tuesday. Such has been the manager’s devotion to a front two of Rooney and van Persie this season that United would surely have been hopelessly outnumbered against City had the Dutchman not broken down yet again.
Cynics might note that Moyes will need to deploy even greater numbers in central midfield to have any chance of matching Bayern’s outstanding contingent. Thiago Alcântara, Toni Kroos, Bastian Scheinsteiger, Javi Martínez and Mario Götze will each play some part over the two legs and, whatever the confidence gained over the past two matches, it is stating the obvious that Bayern will dominate in central areas.
For Moyes, however, matches against City and Bayern hold little to fear save for a humiliating drubbing. With expectations now at a low not matched in two decades the Scot needs only save face to emerge with some credit from the trio of fixtures. United, at a minimum, has at least gained some momentum in the past week.
“Hopefully we can go into Tuesday’s game showing a bit more confidence,” said the 50-year-old on Saturday night.
“You can never refer this game to the next one but all we want to do is get a bit of momentum and that’s something we haven’t had an awful lot of.”
Neither has there been any real intensity this season; an edge seemingly missing from August through to the spring. It is a pattern that particularly shows in the bigger matches.
With Bayern having wrapped up the Bundesliga at the weekend, and City chasing another Premier League crown, Moyes may find his players’ competitive spirit a little short of the opponents once again. And while pride may be at stake, it has been all season to little effect.
“It’s a massive game, but it’s a big game for City too, for the fans and for the players,” said Rooney of Tuesday’s fixture.
“It’s a big challenge for us and we have to go into that with confidence after the last two games. I’m looking forward to it, I’m excited, and hopefully we can get a good result.”
United, of course, will need a little more than hope, but to some extent Moyes can prioritise Europe following Tuesday’s clash. True, there are tough fixtures away at Newcastle United and Everton to come, but there remains little to play for domestically. Not since Sir Alex Ferguson’s early days has that been true in March.
After all, few supporters care whether the club seals sixth place and a slot in the Europa League third qualifying round. It might even be more lucrative to complete the summer tour in the US and not return early for a two-legged tie in late July against, among other options, the third-placed team in the Cypriot First Division.
In the meantime United begins the 167th derby as clear outsiders against a City side that put five past hapless Fulham at the weekend. That would be the same Cottagers who earned a draw with United at Old Trafford in January to universal consternation in Moyes’ camp.
But then this fixture has seen more than one surprise over the years. A unlikely United win might even bring Moyes a little joy.
Wayne Rooney’s reaction said it all – a smile barely cracked let alone a celebration of the fist-pumping, arm wheeling, euphoric kind 3,000 traveling Reds had hoped for. After all, Rooney’s 87th minute free-kick was excellence in everything aside from it’s timing. Four goals to the bad, United’s dream lay in tatters long before the 27-year-old curled home a second set piece in as many games.
Such was the comprehensive nature of defeat to rivals Manchester City on Sunday that it remains hard to draw positives from the occasion. The converse is closer to the truth, with the heart of David Moyes’ strategy fundamentally undermined at the Etihad.
After all, these are the games that define a season’s narrative. Defeat leaves the Scot facing testing questions of his defence, attack and especially midfield, together with an approach that was altogether, and disastrously, conservative.
Few of Moyes’ men left the Etihad with dignity, let alone credit, upheld. From the slipshod nature of United’s defending, through yet another midfield over-run by an opponent, to a chronic lack of creativity that is now becoming a pattern.
This was a wretched United performance, every bit as demoralising as that inflicted in 1989; far worse than the freak 6-1 defeat at Old Trafford two year’s ago.
Sunday leaves United with just seven points from five Premier League matches. Five games in which the Reds have lost two local derbies, and amassed the lowest points total for a decade after the opening quintet of league games. Should Moyes’ team suffer defeat to Liverpool in the Carling Cup on Wednesday the pressure on the Scot will ratchet up significantly.
Perhaps the most disappointing factor in Sunday’s loss is that none of Moyes’ side appeared to take responsibility, on the pitch at least, for the calamitous events. To a man insipid.
It really comes to something when want-a-way Wayne Rooney leads the mea culpas.
“It’s nice to score but it means nothing,” said Rooney, perhaps the only United player to emerge with any self-respect from Sunday’s disaster.
“The points were the most important thing today and we’ve come away with none. We’ve all grown up with local football derbies and it’s not nice when you lose one. I’ve been there myself as a fan and as a player. Thankfully we’ve got the game against Liverpool coming up Wednesday and it’s something we are looking forward to now in the hope that we can get the victory to put this defeat to the back of our minds.”
That is a task far easier to articulate than practice of course, although Moyes will be relieved with a fixture list that includes winnable league matches against West Bromwich Albion, Sunderland, Southampton, and Stoke City before October is out.
The Reds should end that run with a far better points tally. Any other outcome is unthinkable.
But Sunday’s chastening must surely prompt a rethink in United’s strategy, not least in the back four where Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić were over-powered by City’s vibrant attacking unit. For the first time this season the pair looked its age and more. With Patrice Evra also advancing into his 30s, Moyes has deployed three veterans in his back four in each of United’s matches this season.
Here too the will seemingly drained from those in Red. United’s rearguard was given such little protection that Vidić’s attempt to berate Antonio Valencia for failing to track his runner had the air of resigned apathy.
On the other flank Ashley Young’s contempt for defending was matched only by a chronic fear of ball-retention that bordered on the obsessive so often did the former Aston Villa winger concede possession.
Meanwhile, Michael Carrick and Marouanne Fellaini were reduced to hapless spectators, with City utterly superior in central midfield.
Fellaini was billed in some quarters as United’s answer to City’s Yaya Touré; on this evidence the Reds might have better recruited Kolo such was the Belgian’s ineffectiveness.
He remains a puzzle. The £27 million man who neither adds bite to the defensive side of United’s midfield, nor breaks up play through superior positioning. Nor, it seems, does he offer a counter-part to Carrick’s passivity on these occasions.
Aggressive at set-pieces, and effective around the box, Fellaini still has much to prove at this level. Not least in a deep-lying role where the Belgian’s limited defensive instincts were exposed in two of City’s four goals.
Indeed, Moyes’ decision to push Fellaini forward as the game drew to a close may be the forebear of an approach to come, with United seeking to exploit the Belgian’s power in the air, rather than his ineffectual ability on the ball. Look away those who hope to match rivals’ short-passing game.
Elsewhere, United’s creative fizz popped, as it has in four of six games in all competitions this season. After all, those two Rooney free-kicks and a Robin van Persie penalty are all United has to show for matches against Chelsea, Liverpool and City this season.
Meanwhile, two of Moyes’ most creative options in Shinji Kagawa and Nani sat on the bench. Unused, perhaps unloved, while new signing Wilfried Zaha and wonderkid Adnan Januzaj watched on from the stands. It is enough to prompt the question of just what hold Young – the most wretched of all – retains over his new manager.
It is a conservative approach that can only frustrate, but one a decade-long in the making during Moyes’ time at Everton. Even the Scot’s lone substitution – Tom Cleverley – was designed to limit damage inflicted rather than restore any squandered pride.
Still, with Liverpool at Old Trafford on Wednesday there is little time for a radical rethink in approach, although there was much talk in the aftermath of “a response”. It is already a hackneyed sentiment.
Talk is cheap, unlike United’s one summer acquisition, and in the end Moyes was reduced to limp platitudes in praise of the traveling support.
“Whether it’s a derby or somebody else, you don’t want to lose,” admitted Moyes.
“It does make it worse when you want to do so well for your supporters. I thought our supporters were great today, under the circumstances. Whatever manager loses a game, you get on and try to win the next game. You just play the next game and see how you go. We’ll do everything we can to win the next one.”
The Scot has little choice but to field a full-strength side against Brendan Rogers’ outfit; defeat escalating United’s slow start to a full-blown crisis, at least in the more hyperbolic red-tops.
Whether that line-up includes those largely repudiated this season will define the coming weeks.