On Sunday afternoon, Manchester United will visit their 'noisy neighbours' at Etihad Stadium when they clash with Manchester City for a FA Cup Round 3 tie. The two rivals met once in league this season and if you're a United supporter, you likely don't want reminding on what happened. United and City also faced one another at Wembley in August during the FA Community Shield. City went ahead 2-0 in the first half but United stormed back to not only level the match, but also to nick it at the end when Nani scored the winner four minutes into stoppage time. City are the current holders of the FA Cup and it was them who eliminated the Red Devils last season during the semi-final.
Form Guide: After closing the five point gap on leaders City to go level with them on points prior to last weekend, United then proceeded to drop six points during the week in defeats by bottom-of-the-table Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United. Prior to this disastrous week, the Reds had gone 9 matches unbeaten in league since October's derby debacle. United currently sit second in the table after 20 matches, just three points shy of City.
Team News: During manager Sir Alex Ferguson's weekly press conference on Friday, he revealed that there is no new news to report on the injury front. Depending on one's perspective, this is both good and bad. The good is that there are no apparent new injuries after Wednesday's match versus Newcastle but the bad is that a plethora of players continue to be unavailable. The likes of Ashley Young, Darren Fletcher, Nemanja Vidic, Fabio, Michael Owen, Tom Cleverley, Chris Smalling, and Jonny Evans continue to be out due to either injury or illness. In addition, there are concerns whether Rio Ferdinand and Ryan Giggs are fit to feature again after participating in the Newcastle match.
Form Guide: City also suffered a surprising defeat at the weekend when Sunderland's Ji Dong-won nicked the winner four minutes into stoppage time for the Black Cat's 1-0 win. The leaders rebounded nicely with a 3-0 over Liverpool FC during the midweek and with United dropping points during the midweek, City are alone again at top of the table.
Team News: Injuries are not a major concern for manager Roberto Mancini as only striker Mario Balotelli has been ruled out due to that reason. However, City will also be without midfield stalwart Yaya Toure and brother Kolo due to their upcoming participation for Ivory Coast in the African Cup of Nations. Furthermore, midfielder Gareth Barry is also unavailable due to a suspension from a red-card during the Liverpool match. Mancini is hopeful that striker Edin Dzeko and midfielder Samir Nasri will be available for selections as they are dealing with a knee injury and illness, respectively. Former United midfielder Owen Hargreaves has his usual injury doubts but he may be in contention for selections. (City Team News report)
United: For the time being, it appears that Anders Lindegaard is the first-choice goalkeeper and he seems to be a more probable selection than David de Gea for this match. In central defense, the likely duo is Phil Jones and Rio Ferdinand assuming the latter is deemed fit for the match -- if not, midfielder Michael Carrick is likely to deputise. Patrice Evra is the clear first-choice at left-back and at right-back, winger Antonio Valencia or Rafael appear to be the likely candidates to feature. In central midfield, Carrick is a probable selection here if Ferdinand is fit and he could be partnered by either Ryan Giggs, Anderson, Park Ji-sung, Darron Gibson, or even Wayne Rooney. On the flanks, the candidates are Nani, Park, and Valencia -- if the latter is deployed at right-back, then the former two are the likely starters. Up front, any of Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernandez (Chicharito), or Dimitar Berbatov are strong possibilities to form a partnership.
City: For City, Joe Hart is the clear No. 1 while the center-back pairing is likely to be captain Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott. At left-back, expect to see either Gael Clichy or Aleksandar Kolarov and at right-back, the choice is between Micah Richards or Pablo Zabaleta. With Yaya and Barry unavailable, Nigel De Jong and James Milner are the likeliest choices as a central-midfield duo but Hargreaves is possible as well. If Mancini uses a 4-2-3-1ish shape for the match, any of David Silva, Adam Johnson, Samir Nasri, and James Milner are possible to feature anywhere in the attacking midfield band of 3. If a lone striker striker is used, Dzeko is the likeliest to start and if a 4-2-2-2ish shape is used, look for Sergio Aguero to play withdrawn off of Dzeko.
Rather than highlight three key tactics as is typical here in match previews, I'm going to discuss two basic tactical approaches United could use versus City.
* Defend deep and counterattack?: No one doubts the attacking prowess of City. They have three terrific strikers in Balotelli, Dzeko, and Aguero that all provide various traits and compliment each other nicely. They have incisive attackers in Silva and Nasri that can provide a killer final ball or they can tear apart a defense with their dribbling. They even have a natural winger in Adam Johnson that can provide width and also a versatile player in Milner, one who capably can play any role in midfield -- whether that be as a wide player, central-attacking-midfielder, or as a holding-player. What they don't have is a world-class deep-lying playmaker.
Barry and Y.Toure are a solid tandem in central-midfield as the former is tidy with his distribution while the latter is both a combative ball-winner and decent distributor. However, City have struggled against sides that defend deep and the genesis of this is because of their lack of a world-class deep-lying playmaker. When teams defend deep against City, they often bottle up City's attack as it can get predictable against this tactic. Because City don't have a deep-lying playmaker -- such as a Sergio Busquets, Andrea Pirlo, Paul Scholes, etc. -- able to pick apart a defense from deep, teams are able to play compact and frustrate City. When their deeper-lying midfielders do come forward in an attempt to help break down a defense, they often get caught out ahead of the ball when they lose possession and the opposition dangerously counters.
Will United defend deep then and look to counter? Will they use a 4-4-2/4-2-3-1ish shape, defend deep, and look to counter with a front four? Or Fergie revert back to his 4-3-3/4-5-1 hybrid shape that he often used in recent years for 'big games'? The 2007-08 United side was a great counterattacking side in their 4-3-3/4-5-1 shape and it was a lethal tactic against great attacking sides -- the fluidity and pace of play form the front three was a thing of beauty on the counter (Rooney, Park, Carlos Tevez, and of course Cristiano Ronaldo). Could Fergie use this 4-3-3/4-5-1 shape, defend deep, and then look to hit on the counter with versatile attackers in the attack line (e.g. Rooney, Welbeck, Nani, Park)? Do United even have enough midfielders at the moment to pull this off?
* Attack and press?: In the most previous match (yeah, that one), United played in a standard-ish 4-4-2 and City exploited the space between the lines in attack with their 'interiores' that day (United 1-6 City full tactical review). Silva and Milner were the key players that day as they continually got into the gap between United's midfielders and central-backs -- from here, they wreaked havoc. United were simply too open in the back as their attacking intent resulted in too big a gap -- when Rio or Vida play in the back, they tend to defend a bit deeper than if the pairing comes from two of Evans, Jones, or Smalling. Perhaps this is because of a lack of pace when they are forced to turn and defend while using a high line.
Away from Old Trafford, United are less likely to attack and press City -- perhaps this is a good thing. If they do apply this tactic, an open game likely results and United could lose a shootout sort of match that they are not well-equipped for at the moment. However, United did do well against City in the Community Shield in an open match and they arguably outplayed City in the derby at Old Trafford prior to Balotelli's opening goal. That Community Shield featured Tom Cleverley and an in-form Anderson though.
Which approach will Fergie take? Will he try to keep the match close and nick it late -- or even be content with a draw so a replay can be played at Old Trafford? Or will he use a 4-4-2 and have a go?
KO: Sunday 1:00pm GMT, 8:00am EST | Etihad Stadium
Live TV: ITV1 (U.K.), Fox Soccer (U.S)
Referee: Chris Foy (not to be confused with Chris Hoy)
Odds: Manchester City 23/20, Draw 23/10, Manchester United 12/5
TBB Prediction: Manchester City 2-1 Manchester United :(