Robin van Persie
Robin van Persie's goals have helped to paper over some of the defensive cracks at Manchester United this season. Reuters

We may only be in December, but few will doubt that Sunday’s Manchester derby could have massive implications for the destination of the Premier League title. Last season, Manchester City twice came out on top of their local rivals, including a memorable 6-1 triumph at Old Trafford, to wrest the title away from Manchester United.

Only goal difference could separate the two teams over 38 matches of the last campaign and, with United leading City by just three points going into this season’s first derby, both managers know the importance of the result.

Never one to shy away from stoking the fire, Sir Alex Ferguson has made headlines leading up to Sunday’s clash at the Etihad by calling into question the high number of penalties City have received at home. The veteran manager has said he has relished City providing another challenge to overcome.

“That’s the great thing about this club,” he explained, according to the official Manchester United website. “We can accept challenges and we don’t run from them. We move on and we always try and improve where we think it’s necessary. In the main, I think we should take great credit for that.

“This season we’ve responded to [City’s challenge] by adding [Robin] Van Persie and [Shinji] Kagawa. Kagawa is on his way back [from injury] now, but Van Persie has been unbelievable. He’s scored 13 goals already. His intelligence and maturity definitely bring an improvement to the attacking side of our game.”

With Van Persie hitting the ground running, United have been spectacular going forward this season. It has been a very different story defensively, though. United have conceded 21 goals in just 15 league matches, with Nemanja Vidic still recovering from another serious injury and Ferguson failing to settle on either David de Gea or Anders Lindegaard in goal.

While City have allowed just 11 goals in the Premier League, things have also been going far from smoothly for Roberto Mancini’s men. Having crashed out of the Champions League at the group stage for the second-straight season, Mancini is a man under pressure. With some big name managers likely to be on the market next summer, if the Italian fails to retain the title then he will be all too aware that he could be out of a job.

While far from insurmountable, Mancini will not relish the prospect of having to claw back a six-point gap if things go awry on Sunday.

City will be sweating on the availability of key creative force David Silva, with the Spaniard set to face a late fitness test on a hamstring injury. Defenders Alexsandar Kolarov and Micah Richards are definitely ruled out, although Gael Clichy and James Milner should be back in contention.

As Ferguson alluded to, Kagawa is still a few days away from full fitness. The same is true for Vidic, with Anderson, Antonio Valencia and Nani are still at least two weeks away from a return. A late decision is set to be taken on the fitness of Tom Cleverley.

Manchester City (probable)

G: Hart

D: Zabaleta, Kompany, Nastasic, Clichy

M: Toure, Barry

Nasri, Tevez, Silva

F: Aguero

Manchester United (probable)

G: De Gea

D: Smalling, Evans, Ferdinand, Evra

M: Cleverley, Carrick, Scholes

Rooney, Van Persie, Young

Prediction: With Manchester United’s defensive problems this season, there is the possibility of City administering another drubbing of their rivals akin to last season’s 6-1. However, City have displayed little of the same fluency going forward this term that was on show at Old Trafford that day. Silva has always been crucial to City’s creativity, but the Spaniard has looked jaded this season and, given that he is fighting to be fit for the contest, it is hard to imagine that he will be at his best.

Also key for City, particularly in fixtures against United, has been the dynamism of Yaya Toure. The Ivorian, also below par in recent times, will likely need to produce a rampaging performance if City are to get a vital three points.

While Ferguson has shown no sign of doing so yet this season, he must surely be tempted to focus on keeping things tight without the ball on Sunday. If that happens then we could get a tight and cagey affair, with a draw the likeliest outcome.

Manchester City 1-1 Manchester United

Where to watch: The Premier League clash kicks-off from the Etihad at 8.30 a.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by the Fox Soccer Channel, with a delayed online stream available on Fox Soccer 2Go.