How did the narrative get so turned around? The derby has not often been pleasant viewing for Manchester United supporters in recent seasons, with City not only racking up some embarrassingly weighty victories, but securing two Premier League titles in the past three years. Yet, it is not obvious that the Blues enter the Sunday lunchtime fixture at the Etihad as favourites. Not a statement that could have been predicted even a fortnight ago.
In truth City boasts all the tools to take United apart: a spine of Vincent Kompany, Yaya Touré, Fernandinho and Sergio Aguero that offers the power, movement and height to take advantage of United’s key weaknesses. On paper it remains an unfair match-up. Yet, derbies are never played out in theory alone and – no more than perception perhaps – it is United that has all the momentum going into this weekend.
After all Robin van Persie’s wildly celebrated 95th minute equaliser against Chelsea last Sunday has, as many supporters instinctively understood, sent confidence coursing through the United squad. Louis van Gaal’s side has rarely excelled this season, but it is not often over the past two decades that a home draw has been so significant as the one gained at Old Trafford last Sunday.
The hosts, meanwhile, will be without key player David Silva, while midweek defeat to Newcastle United has compounded an already growing sense that all is not quite right in Manuel Pellegrini’s squad. Last weekend West Ham United secured three Premier League points against the Chilean’s side and City is yet to emerged victorious in the Champions League this season.
Indeed, there is something of City’s last title defence in the recent series of limp performances. It might be wishful thinking on United’s part, but this is a City side that looks far from the commanding outfit that secured last year’s Premier League title.
Still, there is an imbalance in the recent City-United relationship that Old Trafford’s finest seeks to redress. There may not have been a better moment over the past three campaigns for United to take advantage. One for the fans as well as an often embattled team.
“It is one of the 38 matches we have to play but, for the fans, it is unbelievably big as a rivalry,” said Van Gaal.
“I have felt that, also with a lot of the players in the squad. It was good to see that. Everywhere it is the same because the derby is between rivals in the city. We don’t have to accelerate this feeling because it is football and you have to play the game, not only a game with emotion but also in a tactical way. That we are doing, that is how we are preparing.”
On the pitch United will again be without a slew of first team players, although Wayne Rooney returns from suspension and Antonio Valencia is fit enough to make the bench. The Scouser’s reintroduction is likely to mean Juan Mata is dropped, although Van Gaal has a tendency to mix up his tactical outlook on a weekly basis.
Radamel Falcao is not fit after picking up a training ground injury, but Adnan Januzaj could retain his place if Van Gaal retains the 4-2-3-1 system deployed against Chelsea last weekend. That choice may lies in the midfield shape the Dutchman wishes to deploy, with Mata, Marouanne Fellaini, and Ander Herrera perhaps competing for just one spot in the United side despite all the injuries.
“As a coach, you’re always prepared and are used to a lot of injuries but I’m not used to this many injuries,” the Dutchman told MUTV.
“At most clubs I have trained, we have had very few injured players but now I’m here for the first time and we are always having a lot of injuries. This week, we still have seven injuries. I can hardly make a choice as there are so many players we do not have. We don’t know what we are doing wrong.”
The are hardly comforting words after a campaign disrupted by absences. Still, it is Silva that may prove the most pivotal missing player after the Spaniard picked up a knee injury during the midweek Capital One Cup defeat to Newcastle. Meanwhile, Yaya Touré suffered a groin strain in the same match, although the Ivorian is likely to be fit.
With Silva out, Pellegrini could shake up a 4-2-2-2 system that has become predictable in recent weeks, potentially pushing Touré into a more attacking role behind Aguero. That combination will certainly a test a United back-four that has looked anything but comfortable this season. Marcos Rojo and Chris Smalling started against Chelsea, although once again individual errors almost cost the Reds more than the point gained.
Still, City start the match having won five of the last six matches against United in the Premier League, including the last three. Last season the Blues scored seven with just the single United reply. It is a series that no Red is willing to countenance being extended this weekend.
That hope may depend on United being more efficient in front of goal as much as any defensive performance. After all, Van Gaal’s side has scored just three from 41 attempts over the last two games against Chelsea and West Bromwich Albion. Given the attacking riches at the Dutchman’s disposal it is not a good record.
“I hope we can score out of our first chance because we have created a lot of chances against Chelsea,” added Van Gaal.
“I think always in our games that we have played in the Premier League, we didn’t score from our first chance and then it is more easy to win the game. That is our goal, to win this game. We are growing, we are developing ourselves. What we have seen of City in the last matches was not so good. You never know.”
United last won at the Etihad in 2012 – a 3-2 victory secured by Van Persie’s injury time winner. The striker might top his celebration against Chelsea should he repeat that feat. United supporters, meanwhile, will settle for a win of any kind.
City (4-2-3-1): Hart; Zabaleta, Kompany, Mangala, Clichy; Fernandinho, Fernando; Nasri, Touré, Milner; Aguero
United (4-2-3-1): de Gea; Rafael, Smalling, Rojo, Shaw; Blind, Fellaini; Januzaj, Rooney, Di Maria; Van Persie
City: Caballero, Nastasic, Boyata, Sagna, Kolarov, Demichelis, Sinclair, Navas, Dzeko, Jovetic
United: Lindegaard, Blackett, Fletcher, Carrick, Valencia, Anderson, Herrera, Mata, Wilson
City 48 – Draw 50 – United 69
Referee: Michael Oliver
Assistants: S Child, S Burt
Fourth Official: K Friend
City 1-1 United
£1 bet club
Rooney to score first goal in 1-1 draw @ 35/1
Running total: £(-)10