Having come through the toughest part of their fixture list almost unscathed, Manchester United head into the final 11 games of the 2011/12 season trailing bitter rivals Manchester City by just 2 points.
To head into 2012 with back-to-back defeats; first a 3-2 home loss by Blackburn Rovers and then a 3-0 thumping at Newcastle, Manchester City fans were right to expect their side to be in a more commanding lead over their neighbours at this point of the season.
Manchester City have done little wrong themselves; winning 7 of their last 8 Premier League games; only dropping points in a 1-0 defeat at Everton thanks to a strike from Darron Gibson. Manchester United have won 6 of their last 7 following their defeat at Newcastle; winning at the likes of Arsenal and Tottenham, coming from 3-down to recuse a point at Chelsea, and beating Liverpool in a heated game.
Pressure is beginning to grow on Roberto Mancini’s shoulders, and whilst they have maintained their cool to this point, there are precious games upcoming for Manchester City which will prove whether they have the bottle or not to overcome the challenge from Sir Alex Ferguson’s side that so many teams have fallen victim to over the years.
Danny Welbeck (at Arsenal), Wayne Rooney (versus Liverpool), Ryan Giggs (at Norwich) and Ashley Young (at Tottenham) have all scored crucial winners in recent weeks as Manchester United continue to show they have a number of goalscorers throughout the team. So much so, last season’s joint-Premier League Golden Boot winner Dimitar Berbatov has been limited to just 486 minutes of action in the league this season.
Manchester United host West Bromwich Albion on Sunday; the only visiting side to come away from Old Trafford with as much as a point last season. Following Thursday’s disappointing home loss to Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League, United players need to focussed and well-prepared the visit of the in-form Baggies. Roy Hodgson’s side have won all 3 games following the resignation of Fabio Capello from the England national team; a 5-1 thrashing of rivals Wolves, a 4-0 thrashing of Martin O’Neill’s Sunderland and last weekend’s home win against Chelsea that ultimately cost Andre Villas-Boas his job.
With that said, Manchester City face the tougher test of the Premier League’s top two this weekend when they travel to Swansea. Their preparation for this match appears to be strange; staying in Lisbon for a further two days following their 1-0 defeat to Sporting in the Europa League on Thursday, before flying directly into south Wales. Can the Welsh side pull off a result?
After this week and a trip to Spain for their Europa League second leg, Manchester United face Wolves (away), Fulham (home), Blackburn (away), QPR (home), Wigan (away), Aston Villa (home), Everton (home) before the big Manchester derby on Monday 30 April.
Manchester City’s fixture list looks a lot tougher. After Swansea and Sporting, the Citizens face Chelsea (home), Stoke City (away), Sunderland (home), Arsenal (away), West Brom (home), Norwich (away) and Wolves (away) before they host Manchester United at the Etihad. Dropped points?
Neither side is overly bothered by injuries currently. Yes, Manchester United remain with Nemanja Vidic for the rest of the season, which has been the case for some time now. In his place, Sir Alex Ferguson has said this week he is happy with the partnership between Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans in the centre of his defence. Evans has notably played well in his last two games, despite conceding four goals in the process.
Behind them is David de Gea. The Spaniard has come good in goal over the past few games after a nightmare of a start to his United career. This began with an outstanding save to deny Juan Mata a winner in stoppage time during the 3-3 draw at Stamford Bridge. His form continued with a couple of great saves in the first half to deny Tottenham when the score was 0-0. And despite conceding 3 goals midweek, de Gea produced a number of top saves during the game.
Antonio Valencia is a couple of weeks away from recovery, but Ferguson can still call upon Nani, Ashley Young, Ryan Giggs and Park Ji-Sung down the wings. Nani hasn’t made too many notable contributions in 2012, whilst Young scored his second brace of the season against a North London side to ensure a valuable 3 points were taken back from White Hart Lane last weekend.
Wayne Rooney is currently experiencing a scoring spree, with 5 goals in his last 3 Premier League appearances and scored his first Europa League goals midweek. Javier Hernandez has scored a couple of goals in his last few league outings also, whilst Danny Welbeck scored the winner at the Emirates in January, although hasn’t scored since.
For Manchester City, their biggest loss comes at centre back, with Vincent Kompany expected to be out for around 10 days following a calf strain picked up in Lisbon on Thursday. He will miss the trip to Swansea and faces the potential of missing the return leg in the Europa League and even Manchester City’s game with Chelsea on Monday 19 March. Joleon Lescott and Kolo Toure are available for selection. Roberto Mancini has also said this week that Micah Richard will return to action on Sunday.
Richards’ return is good timing following an injury to Pablo Zabaleta who had been playing at right back in his absence.
Carlos Tevez is expected to be another return for Manchester City in the coming weeks. What price would you put on the former Manchester United player scoring the winner in the Manchester derby? Or the goal that clinches Manchester City’s first league title in 44 years?
It’s hard to predict which game(s) specifically Manchester City will drop points in from their remaining fixtures, but with trips to Swansea, Stoke and Arsenal in their next three away league games, and to host Chelsea and Manchester United before the season is out… is the title swinging back to Old Trafford?
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