This is a big one. This is the biggest match in the Premier League season thus far. This is among the biggest derby matches since the reign of Sir Matt Busby. On Saturday afternoon, Manchester City will make the short trip over to the 'Theatre of Dreams' to do battle with bitter rival Manchester United. As the iconic clock banner in the Stretford End reminds all, it's been nearly 35 years since the 'noisy neighbors' have won a major trophy. However, City come to Old Trafford sitting 3rd in the table, just five points back of league-leader United. In the reverse fixture at Eastlands on November 10, 2010, the derby played out as a stalemate and produced very few chances on goal.
'Citeh' supporters have made much noise recently about surpassing United, but that return fixture at Eastlands was very telling. I don't think any United supporter is delusional enough to deny that City have taken strides forward since the money-infused Abu Dhabi takeover in 2008. However, City's clear ambition to grind out a 0-0 draw on their own ground displayed that they aren't ready to overtake Manchester just yet; they were very content to settle for a draw at home. Furthermore, Manager Roberto Mancini has publicly stated on a few occasions that City simply seek to qualify for Champions League, and that anything else this season would just be a luxury.
As for United, a victory at Old Trafford would once again establish their traditional dominance and crush Citeh's delusional grandeur for the moment. Who can forget the absolute crackers these two sides played last year in League and in the Carling Cup semi-finals? Michael Owen's winner in last year's 4-3 derby victory at Old Trafford, and Paul Scholes' winner at Eastlands have only raised the derby drama; both moments left indelible impressions on all Mancunians. More importantly though, a victory for the Red Devils would likely eliminate City from the title chase and make it a two-horse race with Arsenal.
United have been terrific at home earning 37 points out of a possible 39 at Old Trafford this season. City's away form has been very solid as well, having earned 22 points in 13 league matches, good for second best in the Premier League. However, City are winless in their last three away matches.
Both sides have injury concerns coming into the game. Rio Ferdinand suffered a calf injury in warm-ups at the Molineux this past weekend, and the Three Lions' skipper will be sidelined for the derby. Antonio Valencia and Owen Hargreaves continue to be unavailable due to injuries that have derailed both of them for most of the season. As for City, Nigel de Jong appears to be 50/50 as he's battling an ankle injury. Mario Balotelli, Adam Johnson, and Micah Richards will all be unavailable.
*UPDATE* Jonny Evans has been ruled out as well.
A tactical preview after the jump...
The return fixture at the Eastlands was a rather boring affair. Both sides came out in a '4-3-3,' and neither were able to create many scoring chances. United had the run of play for most of the match, but only by a slight margin. Mancini was very cautious in his tactics as he had his side stay compact and sitting deep in defense. When in possession, City rarely took chances in the attack, and mostly depended on Carlos Tevez or David Silva to come up with individual moments of brilliance for any attacking threat. It rarely came. United weren't all that dissimilar in their approach, but they did press higher up the pitch. This allowed them more possession in their attacking half than City had, but United lacked the creativity in the attacking third to unlock the organized City defense. The noisy neighbors essentially had eight or nine men behind the ball at all times. I anticipate similar tactics on Saturday.
For the majority of the season, City have used a '4-3-3' system. In this shape, Tevez leads the line in the attacking band, playing centrally in a "false nine" role. The former United man often comes deep for the ball creating space for attacking players to run in behind; this also provides a link player for City between their midfielders and attackers.
Since the acquisition of striker Edin Dzeko in the recent transfer window, City haven't seemed to figure out exactly how to implement the Bosnian into their system. Mancini had Dzeko lead the line centrally against Aston Villa a few weeks back, and had Tevez come in off the left flank, but this was largely ineffective. In City's most recent match versus West Bromwich Albion, Dzeko began on the bench and Tevez was once again playing centrally and leading the line. City were fluid in the attack and easily defeated West Brom 3-0. Another issue City often has is a lack of width in the attack, which has been exacerbated by the injury to Johnson. Silva and James Milner aren't naturally wide players, and both drift inward when deployed on the flanks. In the West Brom game, Mancini played defender Aleksander Kolarov in the attack, and the Serb effectively provided City with width.
Because of these issues, it's difficult to anticipate the lineup that Mancini will unveil at Old Trafford. What I do anticipate though is that the Italian manager will play for a 0-0 draw or a 0-1 victory. Just as Mancini did at Eastlands, and just as he did versus Arsenal at the Emirates, I fully expect City to keep eight or nine players behind the ball at all times; and possibly strike on the counter-attack if an obvious opportunity presents itself. Will Dzeko start and use his size to provide some hold-up play if the defense sends long balls up to him to relieve pressure? Will Kolarov start alongside Tevez and Silva in the attacking band as he did versus West Brom? This would allow another instinctual defender on the pitch for City. Only Mancini knows the answers to these questions.
My guess is that Kolarov starts in the attacking band providing width and defense on the left-side. This would also provide cover for City's left-back if Nani plays on that side for United. This would likely result in City keeping eight players behind the ball at all times, and isolating Tevez and Silva in the attack. If Kolarov does start in the attack, then Pablo Zabaleta likely starts at left-back. If Dzeko starts, he likely will be flanked in the attack by Tevez and Silva. This would result in Kolarov likely starting as the left-back. If de Jong is unable to go, Gareth Barry likely plays as the holding midfielder in front of the defense. He'd likely be partnered in the center of the pitch by Milner and Yaya Toure, the latter in a role higher up the pitch. If the Dutchman is good to go, then he Milner likely starts on the bench.
I actually think United would be better off if Dzeko started and the result being that Kolarov plays in defense, because I think Nemanja Vidic could man-mark the Bosnian striker out of the game. In addition, this would result in City likely playing very narrow and not being as dynamic on the counter-attack. Furthermore, it would provide more space for United's full-backs, Patrice Evra and Rafael, to get forward and join the attack.
As for United, I expect Sir Alex Ferguson to go with his '4-3-3/4-5-1' hybrid shape that he uses often for 'big matches'. Picking the players is a bit tricky because of this week's international fixtures. Fergie was quoted in the media as saying that he would play his players that weren't involved in the mid-week international fixtures. However, it's difficult to imagine that Fergie would sit Wayne Rooney and Nani, despite their appearances for their countries on Wednesday. The other issue is whether Berbatov will be featured in this shape. If so, that likely moves Rooney to the left flank. The Bulgarian's inconsistency and unimpressive performances in this shape causes concern. Here's my best guess at lineups for the derby:
I fully anticipate a cautious approach by both managers. If its tied or United is down a goal early in the second half, this lineup allows Fergie obvious positive substitutions to make to chase goals. Ryan Giggs and Berbatov could be brought to provide a spark and some creativity if City's compact and organized defense proves difficult to unlock. My gut feeling tells me that Fergie wouldn't be terribly sad if the match ends up in a draw, but I fully expect him to chase the three points if the match is tied around the hour mark. I just don't think he wants to risk allowing City into the title chase and risking the noisy neighbors picking up three points. If City need to chase a goal late, this also allows Mancini the option of bringing on Dzeko. But the Italian likely would be thrilled to leave Old Trafford with a draw.
A few keys to the match:
* As readers of this blog likely know, I'm a big Chris Smalling fan, and I think he has the potential to succeed Rio one day. However, his positional sense isn't the best because of his inexperience, and his match-up with Tevez worries me. As mentioned earlier, Tevez drifts deep to get the ball. When he does this on Saturday, Smalling might end up following him into areas he shouldn't and he might get drawn out of position; thus creating space behind him for other attackers to move onto. Communication will be vitally important. Keeping track of the movement of Tevez and Silva is key.
* Speaking of communication; set-pieces. United has given up way too many goals on set-pieces recently (Blackpool, Wolves). This needs to be sorted out as it's unlikely that City will get many scoring- chances in the run of play. City's isn't particularly strong in the air, but Dzeko could provide them an aerial threat.
* Stay patient in the attack. Nani and Scholes will need to try a few from distance. Even though Park Ji-Sung is my favorite footballer, I'd rather see Giggs in this match. The Welshman may be better suited to unlock that rigid City defense. The winner of this game might just be which ever team's attackers have a moment of creative brilliance, or convert on a half chance.
Odds: United 4/5, Draw 9/4, City 15/4
Prediction: After stating during this whole preview how it'll likely be a low-scoring affair, that probably means it'll be an open-ended 6-5 thriller. I'll stick to my guns though.... I'm predicting a 1-0 United victory.