Manchester United never do things the easy way. Roberto Mancini has all but written off Manchester City‘s chances of winning their first league title since 1968. Manchester United were eight points clear with six games to go, and with a seemingly comfortable list of fixtures to run through. And yet we find ourselves in a situation where, if Manchester City were to win the derby mach against the Red Devils at the Etihad stadium on Monday, they will have one hand on the league trophy. This throws a massive spotlight over one fixture, which Sir Alex Ferguson has already labelled as a title-decider. This will not only put extraordinary pressure on the players, but will leave the manager’s decisions open to extensive dissection and inspection. There is no doubt that a portion of the blame in the event of failure will be put on either Sir Alex Ferguson or Roberto Mancini come Tuesday morning; Outlined below five major talking points that could decide the title.
1) Manchester City’s formation:
Will Roberto Macini stick to his guns and play two up-front, or will he revert to the security of a lone-striker? The odds are on a 4-4-2, for two reasons:
- They played with two forwards against United earlier this season, with unequivocally resounding success in their 6-1 win at Old Trafford
- This is a game City have to win. Any other result would tilt the title back in United’s favour. As a result, City have to go out and win the game, meaning that playing it safe would be counter-productive.
2) Manchester City’s choice of strikers:
Sergio Aguero is a definite start. If City play another forward alongside him, the two most likely candidates are Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli. Mancini immediately made a fuss about Balotelli being available for the derby when the FA announced that he wouldn’t face additional disciplinary action for his “tackle” on Alexandre song; Whether he was indicating that his compatriot would start, or he was trying to mislead the United think-tank remains unclear. However, Carlos Tevez has been lively and effective since his return, tipping the scales slightly in his favour. Another point favouring the stocky Argentine is his work-rate, which would put United’s defenders under additional pressure.
3) Manchester United’s formation:
This one is alotogether more difficult to predict, again for several reasons:
- Sir Alex Ferguson has developed a penchant of playing five in midfield in big games, and this match certainly falls under that category
- A draw would suit the Red Devils, and sneaking a win would be an added bonus, giving even more credence to the possibly of United adopting a “safety-first” approach
- An additional man in midfield would help to track the movements of David Silva, Samir Nasri and City’s second striker. United’s defense was found wanting against Everton, and re-inforcements could provide the defenders with vital support
United are at their best going forward, and the current 4-4-2 shape is working very well for the side. The understanding and inter-play forged between Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck has provided some of their most potent threats, and this shape also provides opportunities for United’s wide players to thrive. These thoughts will no doubt cross Sir Alex’s mind as he ponders over this decision.
4) Manchester United’s choice of wingers:
If United play two upfront, it is more than likely that he will stick with the partnership of Rooney and Welbeck, with Javier Hernandez on the bench. What is less clear is who will be patrolling the wings. Antonio Valencia has arguably been United’s most outstanding player in the second half of the season, alongside Paul Scholes. Normally he would be one of the first names on the team-sheet. However, Nani has been Gael Clichy’s tormentor-in-chief, causing problems for the otherwise solid French full-back on more than a few occasions. If Valencia is not in the starting line-up, Nani will start on the right, and Young on the left in a 4-4-2. If Valenica starts, then who will be starting on the left wing is less clear. Nani was recently labelled by Ferguson as a “big-game player”, and both players are equally capable of being either lively or ineffective on their days. Another alternative is that, as part of a 4-5-1, Danny Welbeck is shunted out the left flank. Plenty of permutations and combinations involved here.
5) Manchester United’s Right-Back:
Unfortunately for United, this has become a question of picking the lesser of two potential evils. Rafael Da Silva is great going forward, no doubt, but his decision-making and reading of the game are at a nascent stage. Particularly when dealing with crosses from the opposite flank, his positioning and ability to spot and track his man haven’t been of the highest standard. Phil Jones, meanwhile, has endured a season of diametrically opposite halves; He was outstanding in his buccaneering displays in 2011, but after the turn of the year his confidence has dipped. He started misplacing passes, and developed a tendency of making the wrong moves when he has the ball at his feet. United fans may well be yearning for the understated solidity of Chris Smalling. As a faint beacon of optimism, both Rafael and Jones have delivered laudatory performances on a few occasions this season. Those in the Red half of Manchester will be hoping that this match will be added to that list of outstanding moments.
The stage is set. The Etihad stadium being the venue of a titanic title-decider, probably won’t be tugging at the heartstrings of the purists, but it may well go down in history as part of one of the great climaxes to a Premier League season. If Mario Balotelli is involved, it will also be eventful, no doubt. Whether City can make strides towards a paradigm shift in power, or United can set the stage for title No 20 remains in the balance. All eyes will be focused on Manchester this weekend to see in which direction which the pendulum will finally swing.