Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal will take charge of his first Manchester derby on Sunday, as the Reds travel to Wastelands looking to close the gap between the two sides to just a point.
Vast improvements in the side are plain to see, and though the last two matches have resulted in only a single point in each, they’ve demonstrated United’s never say day attitude and willingness to keep going until the end – after a year’s absence.
Last Sunday’s last gasp Robin van Persie equaliser saw United vindicated for a much improved performance over runaway league leaders Chelsea and while Scousers may sneer at the manner of celebration from United fan’s on securing a point, quite frankly if you can’t celebrate a last-gasp, well deserved point against a team you’re widely tipped to get nothing from, then football isn’t the sport for you.
The first half at Old Trafford served up perhaps United’s most complete performance of the season, before an early second half Didier Drogba goal seized momentum for Jose Mourinho’s side. From there until the final 10 minutes or so, United were seemingly shell-shocked at the prospect of being behind on the scoreboard in a game which they been ultimately in control up until that point – despite in fact never anticipating such dominance.
Sunday’s dramatic draw with Chelsea offered plenty of positives to take forward into this weekend’s Manchester derby, in what Louis van Gaal and Manchester United – given City’s current form – will view as an extremely winnable game.
Eyebrows were raised as the team line-up was announced last week, with a recall for Chris Smalling alongside Marcos Rojo as well the late absence of Radamel Falcao seemingly causing some jitters amongst home support.
Smalling remained extremely composed throughout, with his distribution in particular noteworthy, and showing little signs of rust after a spell on the sidelines.
Robin van Persie led the line alone – flanked by Adnan Januzaj and Angel Di Maria – and offered perhaps his standout performance of the season so far. While we may have to get used to the 12/13 RVP being a thing of the past, the Dutchman’s hold up play aided the attacking cause greatly and was able to find space and chances on a number of occasion, only to be denied by the impressive Thibaut Courtois in the Chelsea goal. The Belgian stopper was powerless however to prevent Van Persie sealing a share of the points deep into stoppage time.
Whilst on the subject of Belgian stoppers, it was no surprise to see Marouanne Fellaini recalled to the starting line-up given his fine cameo at The Hawthorns the previous Monday night. Fellaini turned in his best performance in a red shirt to date, rendering the assist hoarding Cesc Fabregas fairly anonymous on the day.
With regards to the derby, City’s recent form makes for cheerful reading after losing their last two matches – including a home defeat to Newcastle’s second string midweek – and instilled with the confidence of Van Persie’s equaliser at Chelsea, there’s no reason whatsoever why taking all three points at Wastelands should be out of the question.
Recent derbies haven’t been all to kind to United, losing five of the last six in the Premier League but possess enough firepower to pose the Bitters plenty of problems on their own doorstep – provided we can again remain in control at the back.
City inevitably come into the clash as favourites, although the loss of Spanish string-puller David Silva could be of huge significance. Yaya Toure suffered a groin strain in the midweek defeat to Newcastle but is expected to shake it off in time to face United, nothing that a few early, robust Fellaini challenges can’t see to.
Falcao is once again ruled out for the Reds along with Phil Jones, while Antonio Valencia returns from a hamstring injury.
No doubt the big news for United is that skipper Wayne Rooney returns to the side having served his three-match suspension. Opinions on Rooney aside, Mata has failed to produce the performances we had all hoped would be the case in Rooney’s absence making no real case to make the coveted no 10 role his own.
Rooney’s return will presumably come at the expense of Mata and after three games on the sidelines will be more than fired up for the occasion. The United and England captain is the top scorer in Manchester derbies with 11 strikes, including four in his last five in the Premier League at the Etihad.
Elsewhere the back five is likely to remain unchanged after the visit of Chelsea, but may have to turn in an even better performance than last week in order to null the presence of City’s in-form striker, Sergio Aguero. Jonny Evans can provide defensive reinforcements from the bench.
In midfield it’s hard to see Fellaini losing his place in the starting XI given his previous two performances, despite Ander Herrera being back to full fitness. The Belgian can provide the physicality to counter the likes of Yaya Toure, and given that he can turn in a similar performance to last Sunday, could be a key figure.
Against Chelsea, LVG’s tactics resembled something of a 4-3-3 particularly when on the offensive, with Di Maria and Januzaj out wide. While slightly shaky during the opening third, the 19-year-old grew into the game and posed plenty of problems to Chelsea’s defense when opting to drive forward with purpose. Despite displaying plenty of promise in his best performance of the season, it seems logical that Januzaj could be another casualty of the trip across the City.
Di Maria will most likely take up a wide position again, while Rooney’s return could see him pushed into a wide-left position, able to aid Van Persie in attack as well as take on defensive responsibilities when needed, which would allow an extra body in Herrera to return in the middle of the park, in a slightly more advanced role than he has been used to.
Any Manchester derby is likely to be a spicy affair to say the least, but despite never ending talks of Manchester United’s worst ever Premier League start, there is it would seem plenty of light at the end of the tunnel. The panic and frustration of last season haven’t yet set in to anywhere near the same extent as we are still ability to see a positive style from a positive manager beginning to shine through. Of course there have been, and will continue to be the odd hiccup along the way, but with things beginning to come together, coupled with City’s slump in form, the unusual presence of somebody sitting in the seat next to them hopefully won’t be the only thing City fans at the Etihad have to grumble about come Sunday afternoon.
Prediction: It’s likely to be a very attacking game, much more so than last week against Chelsea. Much like last week, avoiding defeat again would be a huge point, so I’ll plump for a 2-2 draw.
Probable line-up: De Gea, Rafael, Smalling, Rojo, Shaw, Blind, Fellaini, Herrera, Di Maria, Rooney, Van Persie