This Sunday will see a Manchester derby that has increasingly gained importance in recent seasons -- perhaps this upcoming clash at Old Trafford is the most anticipated in recent memory. Last season, both sides played to a stalemate 0-0 draw at the Etihad during their initial encounter. In the return fixture at the 'Theatre of Dreams', Wayne Rooney took center stage with his brilliant overhead kick proving to be the decider in that 2-1 victory for Manchester United. The two sides met once more at Wembley in a FA Cup semi-final tie -- Manchester City's 1-0 victory propelled them to their first silverware in 35 years as they went on to win the FA Cup. During this season's FA Community Shield at Wembley, United surged back from two goals down to defeat City when Nani nicked the winner in the 90th minute. United have only lost to their "noisy neighbours" at Old Trafford once in the past 35 years. A victory for the home side would suggest a gap currently still exists between the two clubs but a victory for the away side would fuel the hope for a first league title since 1968.
United come into the match sitting 2nd in the table -- two points behind City. The Reds enjoyed a sensational start to the season but despite remaining unbeaten in all competitions, they have arguably experienced a recent dip in form. Two of their past three league ties have resulted in away draws while two of their three group-stage clashes in the UEFA Champions League have also resulted in draws. United only dropped two points from 19 league matches last season at home and they will be looking to use that superb record to inspire them in their quest to overtake City in the league table for the current season.
Injuries took their toll on United's defense during the early portion of this season but a general return to health has been the trend as of late. Captain Nemanja Vidic returned from his recent injury lay-off during the midweek at Otelul Galati. His center-back partner, Rio Ferdinand, was left behind for the trip to Bucharest but rest was claimed as the reason. Tom Cleverley continues to recover from an ankle injury but his availability for this match is in questionable. Rafael continues to be out with his recovery from shoulder surgery.
City come into the derby riding high after their midweek Champions League victory over Villarreal. Competing in Europe's grandest competition is a new adventure for manager Roberto Mancini's squad and Sergio Aguero's late-winner this past Tuesday helped City earn three valuable points for their previously sputtering Group A campaign. Domestically, City have only dropped two points from eight league matches. Any result for them at Old Trafford would likely go a long way in providing the belief that they can legitimately challenge United for the title this season.
The away side for this match appear to have a relative clean bill of health. The only real concern is the fitness of Aguero after his recent return from an abductor strain. The Argentine was used as a substitute during City's midweek Champions League tie versus Villarreal.
For United, No 1 David De Gea is expected in goal. Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand are most likely as the center-back pairing -- however, the likes of Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling, and Phil Jones are possible if manager Sir Alex Ferguson feels neither is fit nor sharp enough for such an important match. Patrice Evra is certain at left-back while Smalling or Jones is most probable at right-back. In central-midfield, Anderson and Darren Fletcher are strong contenders to start while Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs are candidates as well.. Cleverley made not be fit nor sharp enough to get the call for this tie. On the flanks, Nani is likely to start on the right while Ashley Young may be deployed on the left. Park Ji-sung -- who Ferguson often selects for important matches -- is also a strong candidate to start on either flank. Wayne Rooney is certain to start while his likely partner up front is either Danny Welbeck or Javier Hernandez (Chicharito).
For City, Joe Hart is certain to start between the posts while Vincent Kompany with Joleon Lescott are the probable center-back tandem. At left-back, the selection choice comes down to either Gael Clichy or Aleksandar Kolarov. At right-back, the choice comes down to either Pablo Zabaleta or Micah Richards -- the former provides sound defense while the latter offers more athleticism. Nigel De Jong is expected to be in a holding-role in the center of the park and the candidates to join him are Yaya Toure, Gareth Barry, and James Milner. Just advanced of the central-midfield duo, Aguero likely starts in a withdrawn role if Mancini feels he is fit enough -- but Silva and Toure are options as well. Out wide, Samir Nasri is probable as the wide left player while Silva or Adam Johnson are the most likely candidates on the right. Up top, Edin Dzeko can be expected.
* How will United contain City's attackers between the lines?: If Mancini selects both Silva and Nasri as his wide players in attack, he will have two players that prefer to drift inside and into the space between the lines -- each prefer to operate in this zone so that they can fluidly combine with other attackers in an interchangeable attack. In addition, if Aguero is selected as a withdrawn partner for Dzeko, then City have another player that will drop into this same space. Against sides that deploy a true-holding midfielder or a double-pivot, this could prove troublesome. Theoretically, City can become predictable in this narrow shape and are faced with natural foils in this zone.
However, United generally play without a holding-midfielder -- this is especially true during the current campaign. If this match were at the Eithad, it wouldn't be surprising to see Ferguson deploy some sort of 4-3-3/4-5-1 shape with someone like Carrick shielding the defense. This isn't likely to be the case at home. This zone has been the genesis of United's high number of shots-on-goal conceded and Ferguson's selection choices last weekend at Anfield likely is an omission of this vulnerability. How will he address this issue? Will he simply attempt to win a shootout and have a go at City?
* Will Ferguson play a 'fast & fluid 4-4-2' or a 'ChichaRoo 4-4-1-1'?: During the 2011 calendar year, Ferguson has used two different tactical strategies that have proved to be successful. For the run-in last Spring, he used a 4-4-1-1 shape that carried United to a league title and an appearance in the Champions League final. The main features of that system were this: Chicharito staying high and stretching the defense vertically while Rooney dropped deep to create in the space between the lines, Park and Giggs interchangeable through the center and left side of attack, Valencia direct with his play down the right touchline, and Carrick in a holding role. At the start of this season, United played in a fast and fluild 4-4-2 shape -- one that torched the Premier League for 13 goals in United's first three matches. The main features of that system were this: both Rooney and Welbeck dropped deep to link play, both Young and Nani came inside often to interchange with the strikers, and Anderson and Cleverley joined the attack with late-arriving runs into the box -- fluid movement with quick one-touch passing resulted in an unpredictable attack.
The 'fast and fluid 4-4-2' shape is what sparked the comeback versus City in the Community Shield. Who will Ferguson select for his attack? If Welbeck is chosen over Chicharito -- along with Young and Nani -- then this might suggest that United will look to play in this manner. If Chicharito starts and along with Park, then United may look to play in a similar manner to last season's run-in. Or perhaps some sort of mix is selected. Nani and Young are in-form at the moment -- while Park, Valencia, and Giggs have arguably yet to find their fine form from last Spring -- and perhaps this will result in their selection along with Welbeck?
* City's compartmentalized defense: While City's defenders might not be individually on par with United's, they may be better compartmentalized. This simply may come down to their back four having better cover than United's at the current moment. Neither side have conceded many goals in their 8 league matches -- 6 for City and 8 for United -- but United have conceded many more shots on goal. As mentioned, United have not used a holding player this season and they have been incredibly vulnerable because of it -- especially versus the counter-attack. In contrast, City typically use a deep-lying player and there is arguably no one better than De Jong in the Premier League in this role (begrudging respect). Mancini keeps his side compartmentalized in defense and he likely will rely on the quality of attackers that he has now to generate enough chances. De Jong will continue to stay deep but the other central-midfielder --- whether that be Y.Toure, James Milner, or Gareth Barry -- will only get forward when an obvious chance presents itself for a late-arriving run.
Odds: Manchester United 11/10, Draw 9/4, Manchester City 5/2
Prediction: Manchester United 2-1 Manchester City
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