The Manchester derby will have a most unfamiliar feel on Tuesday when in a reversal of the balance of power in the city for so many years, it will be Manchester United filling the role of underdogs and looking merely to play spoilers to their neighbors’ loftier ambitions.
Manchester City sit a full 12 points clear of their rivals, having played two games fewer, and have the destination of the Premier League title in their hands. Despite being six points off the top, City’s three games in hand on Chelsea mean that if they win their remaining 10 matches they will be champions for the second time in three years. United, meanwhile, languish in seventh place, with their realistic ambitions now amounting to Europa League qualification and restoring some pride.
Such is City’s advantage in goal difference that even a defeat would keep the title within their control. Yet, there is little room for complacency with Manuel Pellegrini’s side arguably having the toughest run-in of any of the contenders. The trip to Old Trafford kicks off a run of three tricky away games in three weeks, which also include matches with Arsenal and Liverpool.
They come into that period in fine form. A 5-0 demolition of Fulham was a return to the free-scoring form that had deserted them of late. It was achieved, too, without Sergio Aguero, whose hamstring injury will again keep him out on Tuesday. The absence of Aguero, as well as Stevan Jovetic, is clearly a blow but it has meant Pellegrini going with just one striker in a formation in which they arguably look stronger.
There are obvious problems without the ball when playing with two forwards against the better teams, as was seen emphatically against Bayern Munich and Chelsea this season. But a single-striker system can also be beneficial to City when in possession. In particular, it enables far more movement in behind, notably from David Silva and Samir Nasri.
With two strikers, it is extremely problematic to have both, or even just one, occupying the wide positions, given their inclination to come inside. But with one striker, the pair has the ability to drift around with each able to intelligently cover the other on the left. City become a far less predictable side. Even when down to 10 men, Silva continued to find space in between the lines, which proved key to City emerging with an impressive win. He and Nasri will doubtless fancy their chances of finding those pockets of space at Old Trafford, behind a United midfield that can be particularly vulnerable in the area in front of their back four.
Of course, Manchester United have a Spanish creator of their own to call upon. And Juan Mata will have particular reason to want to impress given that he was left out of Spain’s last squad, while Silva was included and impressed in the friendly with Italy. It has been a difficult season for Mata after being frozen out at Chelsea and then signed by a manager who appeared to have no real plan for deploying him effectively.
Mata has been a marginal presence since his club-record transfer in January, having been stuck out on the right flank. David Moyes had signed a creative individualist and turned him into a cog in a despairingly predictable system. The criticism of Moyes’s fetishizing of crosses has long-since dipped into parody, but it is a symptom of a wider problem of his reign. The former Everton boss has shown startlingly little imagination or boldness with his team selections, often playing it safe with straight lines featuring two players required to toil up and down the touchline. It has meant a failure to get the best out of Mata as well as Adnan Januzaj and Shinji Kagawa and fails to acknowledge that so much of the modern game is decided by what happens in between the lines.
There have been plenty of hints to Moyes in this direction. Despite the heroic narrative of the occasion, United’s best performance of the season did not come in the 3-0 win over Olympiakos last week, a match that was a frantic eyes-closed assault that on another day could easily have led to the concession of at least one away goal that would have seen United out.
Instead arguably their most complete display came away to Bayer Leverkusen. It came with Kagawa in his favored No. 10 role, playing off and interchanging with lone forward Wayne Rooney. Another of United’s most coherent performances of an admittedly hugely underwhelming campaign came in similar fashion at the weekend against West Ham.
For the first time, Mata was handed his natural role behind a striker and not coincidentally had his best game to date in the red shirt of United. The Premier League champions looked an entirely different proposition with Mata interchanging passes and space with both Kagawa and Rooney. While Robin van Persie’s injury is clearly a blow, and Rooney’s attributes remain more applicable to a No. 10 role, it could inadvertently benefit United.
The question remains as to whether Moyes will be so flexible with his thinking in such a big game against United’s local rivals. After the win in Leverkusen, Moyes gave Kagawa 30 minutes in the No. 10 role a few days later against Tottenham before switching him with the more orthodox forward presence of Danny Welbeck and inviting the depressing sight of the Japanese playmaker plodding up and down the touchline.
What is sure is that United will get a much stiffer examination by City than a West Ham side who submitted limply to their fate after going two goals behind. City will have Vincent Kompany back, allowing Martin Demichelis alongside him greater protection to come out of the back and track the dropping off Rooney as he did largely successfully -- with the admitted exception of one notable error -- against Barcelona and Lionel Messi. Meanwhile, United’s continued defensive problems are likely to mean the uninspiring duo of Rio Ferdinand and Phil Jones could again be deployed. It is a vulnerability that it is difficult to see City not exploiting richly.
Prediction: Manchester United 1-3 Manchester City
Manchester United: Nemanja Vidic will again be suspended, while Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans remain sidelined through injury. Rio Ferdinand, though, could return, as may Antonio Valencia from his eye injury. Robin van Persie is still ruled out with a knee problem.
Manchester City: Edin Dzeko (illness ) and Vincent Kompany (suspension) return to the squad, with just Sergio Aguero and Matija Nastasic remaining on the sidelines.