Up to just a couple of weeks ago the balance of power in Manchester, on the pitch at least, was firmly shifted toward City. Now as City and United prepare to do battle for the first time this season at the Etihad on Sunday, those in the red half of Manchester have reason for fresh optimism.
Six places and 22 points separated champions City from once-dominant United last season and the signs early on this campaign were that it would take Louis van Gaal some time to get his new side up to the level of Manuel Pellegrini’s men. In terms of the depth in quality of their respective squads, that assessment likely remains true. Yet, as United are showing signs of life, City are in the midst of a slump.
Talk of a crisis surrounding the Etihad is perhaps as much as anything a sign of the hyperbolic, reactionary age we live in, but certainly all is not well. Manchester City have not won in three games in all competitions, with a draw against CSKA Moscow denting their hopes of making the Champions League knockout stage, last weekend’s loss at West Ham leaving them six points off the pace in the Premier League and then a defeat at home to Newcastle United sending them crashing out of the Capital One Cup. Pellegrini, though, remains unflustered.
“We need to play faster than what we way are doing,” he said in his pre-match press conference on Friday. “But I remember against West Ham and Newcaslte the best player on the other team was the goalkeeper.
"I think that [the players] know perfectly what they are doing. I’m absolutely sure that we are going to return to our normal performance. If I go back one year, when we just won one of our first six games away, we had exactly the same questions. And the answer is the same. It is the way we must play. We will continue doing the same way.”
Rediscovering their form has been further complicated by an injury to key playmaker David Silva. The Spain international suffered ligament damage early on against Newcastle and Pellegrini confirmed he will now miss around three weeks of action.
Across Manchester, Van Gaal continues to be blighted by injury concerns, with striker Radamel Falcao still ruled out. There will, though, be a return for a player who has scored more Manchester derby goals than any other: Wayne Rooney. The forward is back from a three-game suspension for his sending off against West Ham at the end of September. And, although reports earlier in the week suggested that he too might have been struck down by injury, Van Gaal insists Rooney will feature on Sunday.
“Rooney was not injured,” asserted van Gaal. “Maybe his shoes were too tight, that is possible, but he was never injured. He shall play, he is my captain. That is all I can say to you. I have heard that he has scored a lot of goals against City, the most of any player. I said it to him to stimulate him but he doesn't need that. I am very happy that he can play again and he shall play.”
Van Gaal then will have to make space for Rooney in a team that produced the best all-round performance yet during his reign in a 1-1 draw with Chelsea. While it took an injury-time equalizer from Robin van Persie to get a share of the points, United held their own against the Premier League’s runaway leaders for much of the contest. Key to that was much greater solidity without the ball, helped by a fine display on his first start of the season by Marouane Fellaini.
“He had a great contribution and also provided the assist for the goal,” Van Gaal said of the Belgian. “He had a lot of time injured but, when he was fit, I have played him. He has to continue with that because then I am very pleased.”
United, who can close the gap on City to just a single point with a win, will also have Antonio Valencia available again after injury.
Prediction: Even without the influential Silva, it is City that still have comfortably the better team from top to bottom. Yet the battle between the two managers could be key. West Ham boss Sam Allardyce made a shrewd observation last week when stating that Pellegrini is a manager who focuses only on what his team can do rather than the opposition. Were both coaches to do that on Sunday then City would likely run out winners, even given their recent malaise. But, just as he did against Chelsea, Van Gaal will doubtless come up with an approach designed to counter City’s threats. There is only so much he can do, with the quality of the personnel defensively still not up to scratch and the in-form Sergio Agüero capable of inflicting major damage. Still, just like last week, United’s attacking weapons combined with Van Gaal’s nous could well earn a respectable point.
Manchester City 1-1 Manchester United
Kickoff time: 8:30 AM EDT
TV channel: NBCSN
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra