Slowly Manchester United’s injury problems are easing, but only slowly. Wayne Rooney has served his suspension but was an injury doubt after damaging a foot in training, and Radamel Falcao is still out as he battles back from a thigh problem. Antonio Valencia and Jonny Evans could also return, but Phil Jones and Ashley Young seem unlikely to be ready.
City, meanwhile will definitely be without Frank Lampard, who has a thigh injury, while both David Silva and Yaya Toure are doubts after picking up injuries in Wednesday’s Capital One Cup defeat to Newcastle United.
City were comfortable 4-1 winners in this fixture in September last year, with United embarrassingly meek against a team playing with great verve. That game, perhaps, was the one that persuaded United fans that David Moyes wasn’t the right manager for them. At the back of midfield, Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini had no response to the pace and energy of Samir Nasri, Jesus Navas and Sergio Aguero, dropping off Alvaro Negredo.
Things weren’t much better at Old Trafford, City taking the lead amid an early surge and going on to win by a comfortable 3-0. City, though, have shown nothing like the same drive or desire this season, while there is a bite to United’s play once more. The issue of morale, certainly, isn’t as tipped in City’s favour now as it was then.
A 2-2 draw at CSKA Moscow in the Champions League, a 2-1 defeat to West Ham United in the Premier League and a 2-0 defeat to Newcastle in the Capital One Cup: these have been a trying few days for City and Manuel Pellegrini acknowledges there is a problem.
“We are conceding too easy goals with individual mistakes but I think we are not playing the way we normally play,” he said. “We’re not moving the ball as fast as we normally do, we’re not playing easy as a team, we’re playing too much as individual players and we are missing too many chances. Maybe it’s all linked with the lack of trust. We’ve had three games in a week and they have been very similar — we conceded two goals in each too easily and had a lot of chances in the three games to score and didn’t.”
With moments of individual genius, Toure and Silva almost salvaged a draw at West Ham, but Pellegrini is right: the cohesion that characterised their play towards the end of last season has been lost, and that is having an effect in both the attacking and defensive spheres.
They have become predictable going forwards, heavily reliant on the pace of Aguero, while there is a lack of defensive cover. Again and again Vincent Kompany has been drawn out of the line to try to mop up for his midfield, and that in turn has left Eliaquim Mangala exposed. City are vulnerable.
If Falcao and Rooney are fit and United go back to the diamond, presumably with Juan Mata making way, they have the strength in central areas to over-run City in midfield, particularly if City operate a 4-4-2.
James Milner could perhaps be brought in to counter Angel Di Maria, but even then Fernandinho, Toure and Fernando are in such indifferent form that United could get on top of them. If Louis van Gaal does return to the diamond, though, it does risk sacrificing the flanks to City’s full-backs.
Sam Allardyce last week put Pellegrini in the category of managers who refuse to alter their approach for the opposition, but this surely is a case for going in with a 4-3-3 rather than the 4-4-2. Given none of Fernando, Fernandinho and Toure are in great form, the use of all three – or two plus Milner – would give greater security against the attacking threat of United’s midfield.
In addition, Edin Dzeko has been in disappointing form of late – and there are few players who look worse when out of touch: there seems little benefit in playing a front two.
City are wobbling and United improving – not only are they unbeaten in five, but they’ve redeveloped the habit of last-minute equalisers.
Much depends on who they have available up front, but 4.30 on them to win looks a little long, so United +0.25 on the Asian lines at 2.30 looks extremely good value. A little dabble in the half-time/full-time on draw/away is as long as 9.00.
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