There is little doubt that Sunday’s Manchester derby will provide a genuine marker for the season ahead. Lose and Sir Alex Ferguson’s United will side will find itself five points behind City in the Premier League. Victory, however, will propel the Reds back to the head of the table. The match is, in Ferguson’s words, is a “real six-pointer”.
The derby’s importance – relevance even – came into question during 35 trophyless years in east Manchester. Abu Dhabi money has changed all that, with the Blues now peerlessly rich, holding the FA Cup and now genuine challengers for United’s Premier League trophy. Cockiness has replaced calamity at Eastlands as £400 million of sovereign wealth is apt to do.
Indeed, City come into the match the team in form, with Roberto Mancini’s side having dropped just two league points this season, scoring 27 goals in the process at more than three a game. Ferguson’s team, meanwhile, has gone somewhat off-the-boil in the past six weeks, despite starting the campaign in such unusually thrilling style.
United’s comeback from two goals down in the Community Shield against City kick-started the season in stunning fashion. Yet, four draws in the past eight games have underlined the loss of form felt in Ferguson’s side since Tom Cleverley suffered injury against Bolton Wanderers in mid-September.
Cleverley’s return to fitness hasn’t come a moment too soon, although the 21-year-old is unlikely to start match Ferguson believes will be significant in this season’s title race.
“It’s early doors of course and there are a lot of winning posts along the way and one of the winning posts is this game,” said 69-year-old Ferguson on Friday.
“It could be a significant point of the season. But you can only judge that at the end of the season really. But it is a six-pointer, no doubt about that. Whichever team wins, it will make a difference. But you can recover from it if you lose. And the way we react in the second half of the season, you hope we will be better. It’s difficult to say sometimes what derby games will be like. Last Saturday against Liverpool was disappointing for 75 minutes but, once the goals were scored, it was a great game.”
United will surely have to play far better to ensure a result on Sunday against a City side that is superior to any in the blue half of Manchester for two generations. It is challenge that Ferguson accepts fully, although that has not come without the odd barb of course. After all, United’s noisy neighbours were always likely to get under the Scot’s ultra competitive skin.
Ferguson’s focus on maintaining United’s primacy is undiminished in the face of the new, more localised, threat though. It is a challenge, says the Scot, that the Reds must meet if a 20th domestic title is to head towards Old Trafford next May.
“It doesn’t matter where the challenges come from in this league, you know every year you are going to have to beat someone,” said Ferguson on Friday.
“This year it may be City, although people are being a wee bit premature in writing off Chelsea as far as I am concerned. You can’t discount them. We hope we finish above the both of them. That is the name of the game. City have done fantastically well and, but for throwing away a two-goal lead against Fulham, they would have a 100 per cent record, so we’ve got a game on our hands and we’re looking forward to it.
“The money they have spent doesn’t matter. They are where they are at the top of the league at the moment and at this club we always accept a challenge. We’ve done that time and time again. It’s another situation, another game in the history of the club and we have to deal with it. I enjoy that. It’s the type of challenge we have accepted well over the years.
“When Blackburn had that two-year spell when they were second one year and won it the next it was interesting. It was good for the game. We won the league in 1993 and the next year. Blackburn came along and took the title off us and we reacted in the right way. It doesn’t do any harm.”
In the more immediate future United faces the City challenge with returning midfielder Cleverley likely to make the bench. The youngster exploded into the national consciousness with a match-winning second-half display at Wembley in August. With Ryan Giggs injured, Ferguson will choose two from Darren Fletcher, Anderson and Michael Carrick in central midfield.
Meanwhile, captain Nemanja Vidic is likely to partner Rio Ferdinand in central defence in a rare outing for the pair this season, with Chris Smalling or Phil Jones deployed on the right flank of United’s back four. Wayne Rooney, who scored a brace of penalties in mid-week, will partner Mexican Javier Hernández in attack.
Midfielder Fletcher, who missed much of last season with a mystery virus, underlines the fixture’s importance, not only in the supporters’ consciousness, but for each side’s confidence too. Moreover, adds the Scottish national team captain, United’s pre-eminence is under threat from City. It is a challenge that fans expect United to meet head on.
“We don’t want to give City the confidence of winning trophies to get to our level,” Fletcher told the Daily Mirror.
“Our job is to keep Manchester United on top and as long as we keep on winning the big titles, it means they’re not winning them. If City were to go on a run of winning a lot of trophies, then they would become a global club. But for world recognition, United stands out alone.
The great thing about United is the history of the club. No-one can take away the Busby Babes, the Munich tragedy – all of these things are engrained in the club’s history. United are known all around the world for its history and success, which is what makes it so strong and such a special club.
“Teams like Chelsea have won trophies and built on that success, but that’s been maybe over a 10-year period. They still don’t have the global appeal and size of Manchester United and that’s how we want it to stay.
“The Manchester derby has always been massive, but now City are genuine title contenders for the first time, that makes it even bigger. In previous years, it was bragging rights in the city if you won – it’s a lot more than that now. For years, City weren’t really a threat to us in the league. The derby was always a big game, but now it’s huge in terms of the points at stake and where the title may end up at the end of the season.”
For the moment United remains the dominant force in English football. But City’s challenge is surely coming. How quickly depends, more than just a little, on Sunday’s fixture.
Manchester United versus Manchester City, Premier League, Old Trafford, Sunday 22 October 2011, 1.30pm.
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Jones, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Nani, Anderson, Fletcher, Young; Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: Lindegaard, Smalling, Fabio, Evans, Pogba, Carrick, Cleverley, Park, Berbatov, Welbeck, Valencia, Owen, Diouf.
City (4-2-3-1): Hart; Richards, Kompany, Lescott, Clichy; De Jong, Barry; Nasri, Y Touré, Silva; Agüero; Subs from: Pantilimon, Taylor, Johnson, Zabaleta, Kolarov, Savic, Onuoha, Razak, Milner, K Touré, Hargreaves, Ballotelli, Dzeko.
- Seven of the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index’s top ten players will be on display at Old Trafford on Sunday, with Rooney (1), Young (3) and Anderson (5) all likely to start for United.
- Rooney has scored nine goals this season while City’s top scorer is Agüero with eight. The United striker averages a goal every 66′ 53″ seconds.
- In midfield the battle may well come down to each side’s wide players. City’s midfielders David Silva and Samir Nasri have completed a pass in their opponent’s half every 2′ 42″ and 2′ 20″ this season. Young and Nani have averaged one every 4′ 43″ and 4′ 25″, but have completed 62 dribbles compared to the City pair’s 22, and put in 57 crosses against 22.
- Young and Nani have also out run their City counterparts, putting in 122.68 metres and 127.2 metres respectively for every minute they have been on the pitch. Silva and Nasri have run 119.36 and 96.83 metres respectively.
- Meanwhile, in defence Phil Jones and Vincent Kompany have been leading figures for each side, with neither player having lost a tackle this season. Jones has also completed a remarkable 78 passes in his opponent’s half this season.
- In goal, David de Gea has been the busiest ‘keeper in the league this season, making 58 saves compared to Joe Hart’s 33. Both ‘keepers have conceded six goals this season.
Referee: Mark Clattenburg (County Durham)
Assistant referees: S Beck, S Child