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MATCH PREVIEW: Manchester City vs. Manchester United

Hopefully more images like this emerge from Monday night...
Hopefully more images like this emerge from Monday night...

Everywhere you look, the superlatives are being spewed about the 163rd Manchester derby: title-decider, biggest Premier League match in years, biggest derby during Sir Alex Ferugson's 25 year reign at Manchester United, biggest derby since 1968, biggest derby ever, and so on and so on. The match is undoubtedly massive and during the reverse fixture in October, Manchester City served notice that they're arrived as legitimate threats to United's Premier League dominance when they left Old Trafford with a 1-6 victory scalp. The Red Devils got a bit of revenge though in January when they eliminated their rivals from the FA Cup at the Etihad.


Form Guide: United enter this match with a three point lead on City but the 'noisy neighbours' have a +6 goal differential advantage. United have the best away record in the Premier League as they've accumulated 8 more points than any other side away from home. Just a few weeks ago, the lead for United in the title race was 8 points but they've since twice dropped points during their past three fixtures: a 1-0 defeat by Wigan Athletic on April 11 and a 4-4 draw with Everton last weekend.

Team News: During Fergie's weekly pre-match press conference on Thursday, he revealed that things were unchanged on the injury front for his squad. This meant that Nemanja Vidic, Darren Fletcher, Anderson, Anders LIndegaard, and Paul Pogba were still unavailable. However, rumors that Jonny Evans might be unavailable and that Nani sustained an ankle knock in training this week have since emerged. There has been no official confirmation on these possible injuries to Evans and Nani.


Form Guide: City come into the tie having won their past three fixtures -- a stretch of games that coincides with Carlos Tevez's return to the starting XI. Roberto Mancini's side are owners of the league's best home record as they've only dropped 2 points at the Etihad this season during 17 league matches.

Team News: It is expected that City will have every player available from their squad. Micah Richards has been battling a hamstring knock but he's expected to be fine to feature. The mercurial Mario Balotelli has returned from his latest suspension and he is available for tomorrow night as well.


City: For the most part, the selection choices for manager Roberto Mancini should be fairly predictable. The Italian will be choosing from either a 4-2-3-1 system or his typically preferred 4-2-2-2/4-4-1-1ish system. Joe Hart is the clear No. 1 while captain Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott have been the first-choice center-back pairing as of late. The choice is between Micah Richards or Pablo Zabaleta at right-back and at left-back, Gael Clichy is expected to be selected over Alexsandar Kolarov. Yaya Toure and Gareth Barry typically are picked in central-midfield for City's biggest games but Nigel de Jong is in contention as well. David Silva and Samir Nasri are probable as the nominally wide players but James Milner is possible. Sergio Aguero will start up front while Carlos Tevez can be anticipated as the secondary striker.

* Diagram 1: A projected starting XI for United if they are in a 4-4-1-1ish shape.

United: For Fergie, the choice of system and personnel is less obvious when compared to Mancini's choices. A 4-4-1-1ish shape (see 'Diagram 1' above) is possible and that has been the system chosen for this season's first two derbies. However, since a draw would be a very good result for United, it's possible that the United boss deploys his side in a conservative and more structurally sound 4-3-34-5-1ish shape.

In goal, David de Gea will feature while Evans, Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, and Rafael are the most likely back four in any system deployed by the manager. If Evans is unavailable, then Chris Smalling is probable to deputise. There have been some rumblings this week that Rafael would be dropped at right-back in favor of Smalling but the latter has only featured once in two months so rustiness would seemingly be a worry in that possible situation. Phil Jones is possible at right-back as well.

In central-midfield, Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes are likely to start and if Fergie elects to use a third player in the center of the park, any of Jones, Tom Cleverley, or Ryan Giggs are possible to start alongside them. United's 0-2 away defeat of Blackburn Rovers earlier this month was the most recent match where the United boss deployed his side in a 4-3-3 shape. Carrick was at the base of a of midfield triangle that day with both Scholes and Jones advanced from him. That triangle often rotated in a counterclockwise fashion though as Scholes would drop deep to receive the ball, Carrick would shift to the right, and Jones would surge forward into a right-central position in attack (see 'Diagram 2' below). This is certainly a possible scenario for Monday night.

* Diagram 2: United's 4-3-3 system versus Blackburn Rovers in early April. The solid arrows indicate common movements by each player that day from their positional base. The dotted arrows are specific to the counterclockwise shift by United's midfield trio.

When Fergie deploys his side in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 system, it's more common though for him to use two relatively deep central-midfielders behind an advanced player rather than a lone holding player behind two midfielders. In the past, this would often include Carrick and Scholes as the two deep-lying playmakers while someone like Anderson would provide drive as the most advanced central-midfielder. If Fergie decides to use this sort of two relatively deep central-midfielder system, then Jones, Giggs, or Cleverley would likely be in contention to start as the advanced central-midfielder (see 'Diagram 3' below).

* Diagram 3: A possible 4-3-3/4-5-1 system where two relatively deep central-midfielders are deployed behind an advanced central-midfielder. PJ = Phil Jones, TC = Tom Cleverley, RG = Ryan Giggs, N= Nani, AV= Antonio Valencia, AY= Ashley Young, DW = Danny Welbeck, WR= Wayne Rooney.

Quite obviously, the choice between two or three central-midfielders would impact United's attack. If a front four is used, then Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck would be expected to form strike partnership while any two of Antonio Valencia, Nani, and Ashley Young would be probable to flank them as wingers. In a front three system, either Rooney or Welbeck would likely lead the attacking line while those same two -- along with Valencia, Nani, and Young -- would be in contention to start as wide attackers.


* What approach will United take?: Out of the three possible results from this match, two of them would firmly place United in the driver's seat in the title race while the other would concede control to City. Thus, it's fully expected that Mancini's side will take a proactive approach. However, what approach might Fergie take since a draw would suit his side just fine?

The United boss has stated this week that he intends to play for a victory but despite that proclamation, it's very possible that he decides to take a conservative approach in this match. If he has a go at City, then there's the obvious risk of United being too open at the back as the quality of the City attack and their need for victory makes that a very realistic possibility. If United do take a positive approach, a very open game is likely to result. Fergie's willingness to attack FC Barcelona in recent UEFA Champions League finals, rather than park the proverbial bus, shows that he fears no side. If a conservative approach is taken though by United, then the pattern of the match is likely to be them absorbing pressure and then looking to hit City on the break. Keep an eye for what approach United takes because that is likely to be the deciding factor on how the flow of this match plays out.

* Keep it tight and compact versus City's narrow attack: City's attack is actually rather predictable but due to their immense quality, it is still difficult to contain. Their nominal wide attackers look to come inside in the space between the lines in order to quickly combine. In addition, these players will often drift over to the opposite side of attack in order to create an overload. The secondary striker, Tevez in recent weeks, drops deep to combine with these wide attackers and the ultimate goal of this fluidity is to use movement in order to create space for a final killer through ball to be threaded through the opposition's defense.

* Diagram 4: I realize this diagram is busy but here's the explanation -- the box is the space between the lines where City's attackers tend to gravitate towards, the solid arrows indicate player movement, the dotted arrows indicate the through balls that are attempted from this space between the lines.

One way to defend against this is to use a holding-player that patrols the space between the lines. In addition, communication in zonally marking against City's attack is key because as previously mentioned, if a defender is dragged out of position, the resulting exposed channel is likely to be the avenue for a through ball to be played into. If Smalling is forced to deputise for Evans, the biggest concern would be for the youngster's propensity to get dragged out of position by strikers that tend to drop deep. If this occurs versus City, then the likes of Silva, Nasri, Aguero and Tevez will ruthlessly expose him with runs and passes played in behind him. City do lack an effective deep-lying playmaker so if United can keep it tight and compact in the back, then they can funnel City's narrow attack and likely limit chances their chances. That's certainly easier said than done though...

* United's counterattack: City has struggled most against sides this season that keep things tight in the back and then counterattack them (e.g. Bayern Munich and Napoli). The interchangeable movement of City's front four makes them obviously dangerous in attack but it can also make them vulnerable against sides that can break quickly. If City lose possession of the ball and an attacker like Silva or Nasri has roamed to the opposite side of the pitch, then a deep-lying playmaker can quickly release a counterattack down that side with a well-timed and placed pass. United's best approach may be to absorb pressure and keep it tight in the back, and then use the vision and passing range of Scholes and Carrick to ignite counter attacks from deep. City's deepest lying central-midfielder -- most often Barry but sometimes it's de Jong -- has been exposed numerous times this season trying to break up counterattacks due to the massive space they're often forced to patrol.

KO: 8:00pm BST, 3:00pm EST | Etihad Stadium

Live TV: Sky Sports 1 (U.K.), ESPN (U.S.A.)

Referee: Andre Marriner

Odds: Manchester City 6/5, Draw 12/5, Manchester United 11/5

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