That one of Manchester’s teams might end the 166th derby on just seven points after five games underlines the early season importance this fixture brings, quite aside from the local pride at stake. United won the corresponding fixture last season, together with emphatically taking the Premier League title.
Yet, having dropped points against both Chelsea and Liverpool, new manager David Moyes began the season under scrutiny. United gained fresh impetus after the confident victory over Bayer Leverkusen in midweek – a 4-2 victory that delighted Moyes.
Meanwhile, City secured a 3-0 win against Plzen to relieve some of the early pressure that afflicted new manager Manuel Pellegrini after defeat to Cardiff City in Wales and then the draw in Stoke.
Still, with two new managers at the helm, and a renewed sense of competitive spirit in the Premier League this season, neither Moyes nor Pellegrini is able to countenance defeat in Sunday afternoon’s fixture. It is a scenario where caution may play a significant part.
Yet, United’s confidence received a welcome boost in recent matches, with Wayne Rooney scoring three times this season and demonstrating renewed purpose at Old Trafford. While the Scouser is never again likely to be universally admired in Manchester, he is on the verge of once again becoming a major factor in United’s fortunes.
It is this sense of belief, however tenuous on part of both player and team, that Moyes will take into the derby. After all defeat would leave United as close to the bottom four as the Champions League. And that says little for what two ‘derby’ defeats this season might do to the Scot’s reputation after the 1-0 loss at Anfield.
“We’ve played well in the last few games and have got a bit of confidence and hopefully we’ll try and show that in the game on Sunday,” said Moyes on Friday.
“There is an excitement for any derbies in any big city in the world. They’re all really important to your own supporters. They’re important to the players as well but ultimately it’s about what happens come the end of the season and how many points you get together to see who is top. These points could be really important towards that.
“I’ve experienced derby games in Glasgow and on Merseyside. Every derby in every big city is important to whichever team you support and I understand how important it is for the Manchester United fans.”
Moyes’ job is made more comfortable by Tuesday’s win over the Bundesliga side Bayer. The fixture was notable not only for the quartet of goals United secured, but for Marouanne Fellaini’s full début in central midfield. The Belgian is again likely to slot into the role alongside Michael Carrick against City, proffering the significant physical presence that United has lacked in recent seasons.
Indeed, Yaya Touré’s double in last season’s fixture comes to mind, with Fellaini set to offer the competitive drive Moyes sought when United paid more than £27 million for the Belgian.
The midweek Champions League fixture also brought the welcome reintroduction of Shinji Kagawa to the United side – an event that was in some doubt this season. The Japanese playmaker was, as expected, deployed off the left, but started a game for the first time in the campaign.
Although Rooney is now Moyes’ clear first-choice for deployment ‘in the hole’ behind Robin van Persie, Kagawa brings a different creative dynamic, even if the left-sided role is more restricting than the Japanese may hope.
Meanwhile, the Scot’s likely use of both Rio Ferdinand and Namanja Vidić in the derby reflects a campaign that has seen limited opportunities for United’s younger defenders; a policy born squarely of pragmatism. While Ferdinand’s age and Vidić’s injury record means each now plays a little deeper than in the past, it is the duo’s experience that Moyes has sought in a challenging start to the campaign.
“I’m sure nature will take its own course in time but I’m quite comfortable with Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones,” said Moyes.
“I just felt at the moment that I’ve taken over a new job and it was important I got a little bit of rhythm. I don’t like the word ‘rotate’, but I will change players at different times. My mind was made up that I was going to keep it quite strong in the opening period and then see what happens after that.”
Elsewhere, Moyes will choose between Fabio da Silva and Chris Smalling at right-back, with Rafael on the sidelines for another fortnight and Phil Jones unfit. In-form Antonio Valencia will start on the right-wing in what has become a familiar 4-4-1-1 formation this season. However, Danny Welbeck is still unfit with a knee injury.
But it is to Rooney that eyes turn. The former Evertonian’s three goals this season have brought widespread praise, including from the player’s nemesis, Sir Alex Ferguson. But seemingly ever conscious of the player’s attitude, Moyes praised Rooney for the turnaround in fortunes this season after the 28-year-old sought a transfer for much of the summer.
“Don’t for one minute think I am going to take the credit. The credit is for Wayne Rooney for getting himself the way he is. We are here to help make him better. It is up to Wayne to do it. He takes the credit for that,” said Moyes.
“He has knuckled down really well. He has done his training. Everything he has done he has done himself. He has done it to make himself better.
“He got himself into really good shape physically. He looks lean. He is back to being his aggressive self again. He is fast and hungry. I needed all those things from him if I was ever going to get Wayne back to the level he is at.”
And should the Scouser score the winner on Sunday love from all on the terraces will not easily return, but the joy of victory will be sweet all the same.
Still, City retain a key role in the derby’s outcome. David Silva is likely to return for the derby after recovering from a thigh injury, and Micah Richards could make the bench after overcoming a hamstring strain.
Manchester City v Manchester United, Premier League, Etihad Stadium, 4 pm, 22 September 2013
City (4-3-3): Hart; Zabaleta, Nastasic, Kompany, Zabaleta; Milner, Toure, Fernandinho; Navas, Aguero, Silva. Subs from: Pantilimon, Wright, Richards, García, Rodwell, Nasri, Lescott, Jovetic, Negredo, Guidetti
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Smalling, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Fellaini, Kagawa; Rooney; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Buttner, Evans, Anderson, Cleverley, Giggs, Zaha, Kagawa, Hernández
City 46 Draw 50 United 69
Referee: Howard Webb
Assistant referees: M Mullarkey, D Cann
Additional assistant referees: M Oliver