You’d scarcely have believed it to be possible this time last year, let alone last month, but with the Premier League undergoing more twists and turns that Alton Towers’ Nemesis, Manchester United enter this weekend’s derby ahead of Manchester City with just seven games remaining.
The teams come into the game in starkly contrasting form, highlighted largely by United presence in third, ahead of City, after the Blues held an eight point advantage just five games back. While the Reds have amassed a maximum 15 points from their last five Premier League encounters, Pellegrini’s side have taken just six, losing to Liverpool, Burnley and – most recently, Crystal Palace in the process.
As Louis van Gaal would point out in the aftermath of last week’s 3-1 victory over Aston Villa, fourth place is still by no means a foregone conclusion, particularly with City, Chelsea and Arsenal all to play in the coming weeks, though an eight point cushion should allow some margin for error.
Victory in the derby changes all that though however, not only realistically securing a top four spot, but would give us a four point lead over last season’s Champions and essentially make top three the minimum requirement. Quite a contrast from the endless, monotonous Moyes comparisons that hung over the new manager this season for far too long, without any real foundation.
The fixture has provided United with something of a stumbling block on recent occasions, with City claiming victory in the previous four encounters, something which must be eradicated sooner rather than later, and five consecutive victories should be enough to provide the momentum to go out and really attack the visitors from the offset.
Here are five keys to a Manchester derby victory:
It’s a local derby. There’s Champions League football at stake, pride, bragging rights etc, not to mention the hostile atmosphere between the two sets of fans so tempers will inevitably flair on the field. Ironically, it was neither of these factors which proved so decisive in Novembers derby, but instead, two moments of madness from Chris Smalling, which saw United reduced to 10 men just before the break at the Etihad.
From then on, despite United turning an impressive performance, it was always going to be an uphill task with reduced numbers. United had looked the more likely to snatch the advantage before Smalling’s dismissal, but two quick-fire acts of stupidity cost United dearly on the day.
Smalling has bounced back fantastically since then, silencing many of his doubters and has been a mainstay in the defence during United’s recent turn of fortunes. His dismissal did however – almost obviously – highlight the necessity to keep our discipline or risk being punished as a result.
Angel Di Maria was dismissed – rather cheaply – against Arsenal, and despite United trailing 2-1 at the time, the Argentine’s sending off saw United’s hopes of getting back into the game fade away as he trudged down the tunnel back to the dressing room.
Silva and Aguero among others will provide the trickery and flair in the City attack and therefore eyes must be on containing the likes of those, or Navas whose pace will cause Blind some problems without giving away cheap free kicks or penalties.
The visitors have been well out of form of late, but they’ll be up for it at Old Trafford and looking to exploit any opportunities we might provide, no matter how miniscule. Smalling has been a calming presence in the United defence, but may not recover from illness in time to feature. If fit, Smalling should start alongside Rojo to give a little more balance to the defence as opposed to Jones, who despite playing well in recent weeks, has been known to cause premature heart attacks at times through his eratic (or is it enthusiastic?) brand of defending.
For goodness sake, deal with Aguero
City’s star frontman has hardly set the world alight of late, much like his side, having not scored in his last six competitive appearances for the Blues. There is however, something about the Manchester derby which seems to bring out the best in Aguero.
Having notched four goals in his last three Manchester derbies, the Argentine has become a central figure to how the ties pan out, with United’s defence unable to adequately deal with the threat of their mercurial front man.
Aguero will likely start up top alone on Sunday, supported by chief string puller David Silva, another to cause the United defence problems since his arrival from Spain. Cutting off supply to Aguero will be a key factor to any victory for United, and neither he nor Silva should be afforded any space to manoeuvre.
There’s no love lost between our own Argentine, Marcos Rojo and Aguero after a personal spat during the World Cup, and having seen the City striker nab the winner in the previous derby this season, Rojo will be keen to shut-out his international team-mate this time around.
Putting in a nice early firm challenge wouldn’t go amiss either Marcos.
Surely not five in a row?
Motivation of the players should never have to be called into question in the build up to a derby game, particularly now given City’s riches elevating them to the undeserved achievers which they have unfortunately become. United’s players will be more than ready to go out and pick up the three points on home soil, but given the Blues have come away victors in the previous four encounters, a little spice should be added to this one from our perspective.
No team in Premier League history has recorded five consecutive victories against United, and with the game taking place at Old Trafford, there’s really no reason why that record should be breached now, particularly given our positive, attacking brand of football we are now playing.
Derbies were bleak last season under David Moyes, never looking anything close to competitive as United shipped seven in total, losing 4-1 at the Etihad, before a 3-0 tonking at Old Trafford. With United remaining competitive away from home this season even with 10 men for the majority of the game, there’s every reason to be positive this time around and the opportunity to condemn City to a fourth straight away victory and take them further out of the top three race will be of huge appeal to both manager and players.
Van Gaal has already stressed how he dreams of his first Manchester derby victory, and his side come into the fixture in the perfect frame of mind given recent good showings.
Di Maria must continue to wait
For the second game in succession, Angel Di Maria came off the bench to produce a key assist for United, as he provided the cross which saw Wayne Rooney hammer home our second against Villa last week.
Di Maria has sat out since returning from suspension and forced to make an impact from the bench in the second half against both Liverpool and Aston Villa, both times replacing Ashley Young down the left-flank.
The Argentine posted much better numbers in his most recent outing, recording a 86.7% pass accuracy compared to much poorer showings recently, and his confidence will have been buoyed again from providing another huge assist, almost a minute following his introduction.
I still wouldn’t start him here though.
This one’s sure to split opinion, but sometimes that’s just how it goes. Before too long, Di Maria will be back as a mainstay in Louis van Gaal’s starting XI, and when he does so I will welcome him with open arms. Arguably his two most recent showings have proved worthy of a recall, but with a game of this magnitude I’d rather start with a similar setup which has seen us seal some of our most emphatic victories of the LVG era.
Many will correctly point out that Young was wasteful last time out, failing with all 10 of his attempted crosses. This may well be the case, but was uncharacteristic of Young given his form this term and one of United’s most consistent performers. The understanding he has developed on the left flank with Daley Blind has proved particularly fruitful and allowed him the opportunity to put in 10 crosses in the first place. Also, this could be a tad unfair on Di Maria, but both assists in recent matches left Mata and Rooney respectively with a lot of work to do given the nature of the passes.
Di Maria has proved more wasteful in possession at times this season and will be punished against the likes of City. Young starts for me, with a fresh Di Maria to have another big impact in the second half. Another assist upon arrival would go down pretty nicely.
Oh to have midfielders who can score goals again!
It’s no coincidence that United’s upturn in fortunes parallels with the return of Spaniards, Juan Mata and Ander Herrera to the starting line-up. The pair’s bromance transcends beyond just off-field activity as seen either man notch a brace in one of the last two fixtures, but has also seen the pair deliver assists for one another in the process.
A mutual understanding can be easily witnessed on the field, with their link up a key factor in United’s slick movement going forward and fluidity of late. Combined with that, the pair both have the ability to score goals from the midfield, a virtue we have lacked for sometime now. Mata has found the net eight times this season to Herrera’s seven with the latter finding the net with all of his five Premier League shots on target.
In Herrera United seem to have finally found a perfectly balanced box-to-box midfielder, who is not only combative and feisty in his attempts to win possession and break down opposition, but to turn defence in to attack and pitch in with goals himself. Something greatly missed during his spell on the sidelines.
The pair have made themselves indispensible to the manager in recent weeks, and suddenly –for the first time in quite some time – the United midfield looks more complete and threatening than that of our Manchester counterparts.
Things are heading in the right direction for Manchester United, but a derby victory would help the cause on so many levels. Not only would it more or less ensure Champions League football would be at Old Trafford next season, it makes third place (or second) an extremely viable option and ends a miserable run of results against the ironically, not so noisy neighbours.
All signs point to a United win if you’re to look at the form book, but as far as derbies are concerned, nothing is ever that simple. More United numbers in midfield than previous meetings should make it harder for the likes of Toure, Fernandinho and Silva to get comfortable on the ball, with Fellaini and Herrera likely to make their presence felt.
The pressure is firmly on City and Pellegrini following their poor run of results, and if rumours are to be believed it could be the last time we see the Chilean in the away dugout at Old Trafford sporting City colours, particularly if van Gaal is to deal him another negative result on Sunday.
Van Persie has been ruled out of contention, possibly a blessing in disguise in this case, although he will have to settle for a place on the bench once he is fully fit once again. As stated, Smalling would be my choice to partner Rojo in defence if he is fully recovered while Angel Di Maria can make his presence felt as an impact substitute once again.
It’s hard not to see City getting on the scoresheet, particularly given De Gea’s goal being breached fairly cheaply by his standards in the last two, but if United can look anywhere near as threatening going forward as they have in recent weeks then goals will follow. I’ll plump for an optimistic 2-1 victory for United.