Magic of the Cup? Manchester United might need it this weekend, as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side heads into the derby as clear underdogs for the first time in many years. The Scot’s side is seeking to repair some of the considerable damage done over the past week after defeats to Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United, which have handed Manchester City the initiative in the Premier League title race. But Sunday’s visit to Eastlands for the FA Cup third round offers potential redemption. City, now odds-on to take the Premier League, will start favourites to repeat last season’s FA Cup semi-final victory.
Ferguson’s efforts to bring home silverware this season are being undermined by a lengthy and persistent injury list, with key defenders Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans still absent for Sunday’s visit to Eastlands. Tom Cleverley, now back in light training, will also miss the game alongside long-term injury victims Nemanja Vidić, Michael Owen, and Fábio da Silva. Ashley Young is unlikely to return for another fortnight, while Rafael da Silva could make the side after being benched for the trip to Newcastle.
Indeed, injuries and home advantage means that City will expect to take the tie, admits Ferguson, with the Scot banking on a cup tie spirit to send the Reds into the fourth round at the old rivals’ expense.
“There are no new injuries from Wednesday so it’s the same squad for Sunday,” confirmed Ferguson.
“There’s no progress really to report. Chris Smalling is the one I’d love to get back but he’s got a really bad bout of tonsillitis. We expect to have him training by Monday. Jonny Evans has still got his calf injury. But there are enough experienced players in the squad to cope with a really difficult tie on Sunday.
“I always say about the FA Cup that we take anyone in a home draw so the advantage is with City, in this respect, in terms of the home draw. But it’s a cup tie, a local derby and anything can happen in these games. I think we’ve been expecting City to do well. They’ve got a strong squad and, apart from Mario Balotelli, all the players are very experienced. So it’s not unexpected where they are now. But they also know we’re right behind them.”
The challenge to City suffered a double blow in the past week with defeats to Blackburn and Newcastle. United had looked set to take the Premier League lead as the season entered its second half. Instead, the focus is now on the Reds poor form and defensive instability. Having shipped three goals in each of the past two games this week, Ferguson knows that he must tighten up a leaky back-four at Eastlands. It is a challenge not aided by so many absentees
Meanwhile, key midfielder Michael Carrick says that the team is banking on its ability to recover quickly from setbacks for the match against City. Carrick is one of many United players not to have won the cup – of the current squad only Darren Fletcher and Ryan Giggs have winners’ medals. It’s a fact that the 30-year-old midfielder is determined to put right.
“We’ve just got to get on with it. We tend to overcome setbacks pretty well here and hopefully we can do the same,” Carrick told ManUtd.com.
“Sunday’s game is a massive game – against our biggest rivals – and we’re looking forward to it. The fixture’s gone to another level from my first two or three derbies. You’ve got to be impressed by City. As well as having some great attacking threats, able to hit you at any time, they’re also a solid unit and hard to break down.
“We want to be playing in the big games, when there’s real pressure and a whole lot at stake. These are the games in which we really test ourselves and in the past, we’ve been really good at finding a way to win. That’s what we’ll be focusing on on Sunday.
“We just want to go through and be challenging to win the competition. A lot of the players here at United, including me, haven’t won the FA Cup and the club hasn’t won it for a number of years. That’s something we want to put right. Okay, with our biggest rivals and our local rivals in front of us on Sunday, it makes the game a whole lot bigger. But on the face of it, we just want to progress and be successful in the competition.”
United’s chances of progressing will depend greatly on how tight Ferguson’s back four remains at Eastlands. Rio Ferdinand and Phil Jones suffered a torrid spell at St. James’ Park, with the home side scoring three. It could have been many more. But with Vidić, Evans and Smalling all out, the partnership is likely to resume at Eastlands.
Ferguson may well choose to pack midfield though, hoping to win a battle in which may be missing key Yaya Touré. Although the Ivory Coast international is due to report for the Africa Cup of Nations Ferguson doubt’s whether City manager Roberto Mancini is telling nothing but the truth.
The Scot is likely to deploy Wayne Rooney as a lone forward, with Carrick, Ryan Giggs, Anderson and Park Ji-Sung competing for spots in central midfield. Antonio Valencia, Nani and Danny Wellbeck will compete for the wide positions.
“I am not sure Touré won’t be available for Sunday,” added a suspicious Ferguson.
“He probably will. I don’t know the whole background but apparently, he doesn’t need to meet up until Monday, I read somewhere, which suggests he should be playing on Sunday. All the teams who have African players have never really suffered much. If you check the records, they all seem to sail through it. I don’t think it makes a great impact when you have a squad of players. There are plenty to occupy those positions until they come back.”
Meanwhile, City will also be without forward Mario Ballotelli and defender Kolo Touré, who is due to meet up with the Ivory Coast squad. Manager Mancini could recall outcast Dutch midfielder Nigel de Jong in Yaya’s stead, while James Milner, David Silva and Adam Johnson will compete for a place in wide areas.
Facing the tournament holders is a reminder to those in the squad that Ferguson’s side has not lifted the FA Cup since beating Millwall in 2004. Defeats to Arsenal and Chelsea in subsequent finals each came with a touch of ill fortune, and United will surely need to turn that around to win at Eastlands. Yet, says the United manager, the lack of Cup medals in the squad will motivate his men to push that little bit harder on Sunday.
“It’s probably a motivating force for the players who haven’t got medals,” admitted Sir Alex.
“Particularly someone like Rio Ferdinand. He mentioned to me last season that he hadn’t got an FA Cup medal and I couldn’t believe it, given the length of time he has been at the club. Everyone likes to win the FA Cup at least once in their life.”
History is with the men in Red – just. United has five FA Cup victories over the Blues, to City’s four. And of the 160 previous meetings, United has won 66, to City’s 44, with 50 drawn.
Manchester City versus Manchester United, FA Cup – third round, Eastlands, Sunday 8 January 2012, 1pm.
City (4-4-2): Hart; Richards, Kompany, Lescott, Zabaleta; Silva, De Jong, Milner, Nasri; Džeko, Aguero. Subs from: Pantilimon, Kolarov, Clichy, Savić, Barry, Johnson, Nimely, Razak.
United (4-5-1): Lindegaard; Rafael, Jones, Ferdinand, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Anderson, Park, Park; Rooney. Subs from: De Gea, Fryers, Anderson, Pogba, Cole, Giggs, Nani, Lingard, Diouf, Hernandez, Welbeck, Berbatov.
Referee: Christopher Foy (St. Helens)
Assistant Referees: Simon Beck & Steve Child
Fourth Official: Michael Jones