On Monday evening, at the Theatre of Dreams, the red and blue halves of Manchester will congregate for the 165th Manchester derby. These two sides have met once this season during the reverse Premier League fixture at the Etihad. On that memorable afternoon, after two first-half goals from Manchester United being answered by two second-half goals from Manchester City, Robin van Persie won the match in injury-time when his free-kick deflected off a meek Samir Nasir and in off Joe Hart's far-post.
Form Guide: United enter the weekend with a 15-point lead in the title race over City with 8 games remaining. The Reds have not lost in league since mid-November. They have, though, been eliminated from 3 cup competitions. The most recent result was defeat by Chelsea in the FA Cup last Monday.
Team News: As of Friday, Nemanja Vidic and Jonny Evans have been out of training and each are doubts for the derby. Wayne Rooney and Rafael have been carrying knocks as of late but both returned to training in recent days and both should be available for selection.
Form Guide: Last season's champions enter the weekend 2nd in the table and 5 points clear of 3rd in the table Tottenham Hotspur. City have been in solid form as of late as they've won 5 of their past 6 matches across 2 competitions. The most recent result was a 4-0 league defeat of Newcastle United last weekend. Roberto Mancini's side will meet Chelsea next weekend at Wembley for a FA Cup semi-final tie.
Team News: Jack Rodwell, Maicon, and Micah Richards are expected to be out due to injury. The likes of David Silva, Samir Nasri, and Matija Nastasic have been carrying slight knocks but each are expected to be available on Monday.
United: As most are probably aware, Sir Alex Ferguson seems to almost relish having a surprise or four when the team sheet comes out an hour prior to kick-off. As always, expect the unexpected from United's starting XI. David de Gea in goal, Rio Ferdinand at center-back, Michael Carrick in central-midfield, and Patrice Evra at left-back are the only selection choices I'm (sort of) certain of.
If either Vidic or Evans train over the weekend, and if one is deemed fit enough, they likely would be partnered with Ferdinand in central-defense. If neither can feature, then either Chris Smalling or Phil Jones would deputise. If Rafael isn't fit enough to start right-back, then both Smalling and Jones would be considered for that position, as might Antonio Valencia.
Tom Cleverley seems most likely to partner Carrick in central-midfield. However, if Ferguson desires a more combative presence, then Jones could be selected. Anderson and Ryan Giggs are possible as well.
Very few of United's attackers are currently near peak form. Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney are probably the most likely duo up front, but there will be no surprise if any of Javier Hernandez (Chicharito), Shinji Kagawa, or Danny Welbeck are selected. Due to the woeful form of the natural wingers -- Valencia, Nani, and Ashley Young -- any of Kagawa, Welbeck, and Giggs are possible for a role out wide.
* Click here for more on the possible selection choices for United's attack.
City: For the most part, the selection choices for Mancini are a bit simpler. Joe Hart is the clear No.1 and the back four protecting him is expected to be Nastasic, Vincent Kompany, Pablo Zabaleta, and Gael Clichy. Joleon Lescott and Kolo Toure, though, could be in contention in central-defense while Aleksandar Kolarov might get consideration at left-back.
Mancini typically opts for a 4-2-2-2 system, but a 4-2-3-1 or a back three are possible for Monday, whether that's from the start or as an in-game tactical change. Gareth Barry and Yaya Toure are first-choice for the double-pivot, but if Mancini wants to use the latter higher up the pitch in a 4-2-3-1, then Javi Garcia will come into the side.
Silva will start as a nominal wide attacker -- if fit -- and on the opposite side of him, either Nasri or James Milner will feature. Up front, if City decide to start with a 4-2-2-2 shape, then two of Carlos Tevez, Edin Dzeko, and Sergio Aguero will be used. If a 4-2-3-1 is the starting formation, then only one striker will lead the attacking line while Yaya will be in behind for support.
* What approach will United take?: Since the 1-6 thumping at Old Trafford last season, Ferguson has opted to counterattack against the 'noisy neighbours' in the three encounters since. In the defeats of City in last season's FA Cup and in this season's league meeting, that generally worked well. In the title-decider last year, it went horribly wrong. All three of those matches occurred at the Etihad. Will Ferguson change his approach at Old Trafford and try to keep the shape compact in the back while then hitting Mancini's side on the break? Or will United fight to win the possession battle?
In the match from this past December, United initially tried to play with a somewhat high defensive line. They weren't defending on the edge of their own area like they were in the title-decider last season. City, though, with the pace of Mario Balotelli and Aguero, looked a threat at times to get in behind the center-backs that day -- Ferdinand and Evans -- and receive through-balls from Silva and Nasri. When Rooney scored two first-half goals, that allowed United to recede their positioning a bit. It's very possible that Ferguson will look to do the same in Monday's derby.
Don't read too much into what happens in the first 10 minutes or so when trying to decipher Ferguson's tactics. The gaffer is likely to use the charged atmosphere to power his side into some early and intense pressing with the hope of starting transitions high up the pitch. Once things cool down a bit, see if United are fighting to win the possession battle in the middle third of the pitch or if they are backing off a bit, keeping their lines compact, and then looking to break into space.
* What shape(s) will City be deployed in?: City are likely to start in a 4-2-2-2 system, but their 'Plan B' typically is a direct 4-2-3-1 or a 3-4-1-2. Click here for a City specific scouting report of each of those systems and also for a description of how they handle set-pieces. When trying to figure to whether they are in a 4-2-2-2 -- a system where the front four flood the space between the lines looking to thread through balls -- or in a direct 4-2-3-1, check to see where Yaya is positioned. If he's next to Barry or Garcia, he's in a double-pivot. If the Ivorian is behind a lead striker and ahead of a double-pivot partnership, City will then play with less intricacy and look to drive their way forward in a more direct fashion.
* City tend to overload the flanks: A common attacking move for City is to overload their attackers on one flank. This is something they did to great effect in the 1-6 nightmare.
The wide attackers -- Silva, Milner, and Nasri -- generally act as interiores. They drift in from the flanks and float across the pitch looking for pockets of space to exploit. Quite often, during one of these wandering forays, one of the wide attackers will find himself on the same side as the other wide attacker. The result is 2 v 1, 3 v 2, and 4 v 3 overloads on one side of the pitch. Sometimes one of the strikers, usually Tevez or Aguero, will join in on the action. These two Argentine strikers, along with Silva and Nasri, possess the technical ability and imagination to combine for some devastating attacking moves.
This is perhaps why Ferguson has looked to keep his defensive shape compact in recent matches against City. This squeezes the space of the gaps available for exploitation and despite the overloads at times, the tightness in shape allows United to deal with the threat in a systematic and cohesive manner. The added benefit is that City's attackers are often drastically out of position when possession is lost. Thus, they can be vulnerable to counterattacks by the opposition. During United's second goal at the Etihad in December, Silva was caught out of position and Rafael blew past him on the break. This resulted in a 2 v 1 advantage for the right-back and right-winger Antonio Valencia and the eventual assist for Rooney's cool finish.
KO: 8:00pm BST, 3:00pm EST | Old Trafford
Live TV: Sky Sports 1 (U.K.), ESPN2 (U.S.)
Referee: Mike Dean
Odds: Manchester United 13/10, Draw 13/5, Manchester City 5/2