Looking Ahead To The Manchester Derby

On Sunday evening Manchester United welcome bitter rivals Manchester City in the 169th derby, with an automatic Champions League place at stake. Separated by a mere point in the league standings, the two arrive in contrasting form, City on a run that has seen them oscillate between solid wins and narrow defeats, while United are riding the crest of a 5 game winning run, the last 3 games in which the Reds have played arguably their best football of the season. Trying to figure out the likely outcome whenever these two teams meet is never an easy task, with anything possible in that highly charged derby-day atmosphere. It is especially difficult for Sunday’s fixture, given the timing of the match with relation to the end of the season – and of course, because both teams have played both wonderful football and some pretty dire stuff at different points in the season. The proverbial form book goes out of the, well, proverbial window.

THE CASE FOR A CITY WIN:

The narrative building around City’s late season cool down, that they are in the middle of an implosion is bit misleading, as in reality, their results aren’t completely terrible. All three of their recent losses were by a single goal margin, and have been preceded by big wins. Yes, three defeats in eight is not the hallmark of good form, nor is the string of draws they collected in January, but when they have won matches, they have generally won them big.

City have also been dominant over United in recent times, and every United fan would do well to be wary of the noisy neighbours. United have lost six out of the last seven league meetings against City, including the last four in a row for a combined score of 10-2. In the last five league visits to Old Trafford, City have scored fifteen times, averaging three each. Let’s face it, another three goals from City would be enough for them to win, especially when United have only managed to score more than that once – and that was against a hapless QPR side. Ages ago.

Conventional wisdom says no good team stays in a slump forever (though City are doing their best to disprove that), and there is a danger that against United is when they will finally start firing again. Despite misfiring lately, you would expect Sergio Aguero to return to form sooner rather than later. In addition, outstanding United goalkeeper David De Gea has picked this to be his time to put in a few suspect performances and has conceded two soft goals in successive matches against Liverpool and Aston Villa. Given that two out of every three derbies with a winner in the last 10 years were won by a single goal, another mistake from Spanish Dave could decide the tie.
And of course, given the way the season has gone for United, the last three matches notwithstanding, it wouldn’t be outside the realms of possibility for the tide to turn, and for United to revert to type. That Arsenal FA Cup match, let’s remember, was only just 4 games ago.

THE CASE FOR A MANCHESTER UNITED WIN:

Quite simply, Manchester United are due a win against City. Since United’s early 1990s dominance over City (6 in row between 1993 and 1995, and one more when City returned to the Premier League) the derby has generally been well contested in the Premier League era, with the two teams exchanging victories in one-off matches. However both teams have also had periods of total dominance over each other, and have each had a run of four wins in a row. City are currently on theirs and this would seem the time for that run to come to an end.

United are also in great form and are playing with purpose and confidence, something that alluded them earlier in the season. Leaving aside the much publicised recent upturn in both results and style of play, since losing at the Etihad in November, United have only failed to win on five out of twenty-one occasions in the league. In that time they lost just twice – two narrow one goal defeats – and they have conceded at a rate of 0.67 goals per match. On just one occasion, against Swansea, did the opposition manage to score more than once.

Additionally, United have key players in form in key areas of the pitch. The defenders finally look settled and comfortable both with each other and with playing in Louis van Gaal’s system(s). De Gea, Smalling, Carrick, Herrera and Rooney have been immense down the United spine, while Young, Blind, Mata and the much-maligned Tony Valencia have provided width, quality deliveries and a few goals from those wide areas. Additionally United have an unlikely hero in Fellaini who can do a job, has been effective and has decided games, not to mention a wealth of options from the bench in every position – particularly upfront, with Angel di Maria, Falcao and Robin van Persie are available to be called upon if the starting eleven are not at their best.

Lastly, the uncertainty surrounding the future of Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini seems to have severely limited his ability to inspire a performance from his team, and this might be United’s biggest asset in this match.

THE VERDICT:

If Manchester United play to their potential, it is hard to see past a home win. The form of Aguero and David De Gea could be key though, if the two teams are evenly matched as the match wears on. The referee is also likely to be a deciding factor, as history tells that there will unlikely to be 22 players on the pitch come full time whistle. It should also be said though, that the two teams have drawn this match in only three of the last twenty one league meetings, so the draw result is probably due as well. Either way, an away win seems the least likely scenario come Sunday.