The theory all season has been that Manchester City have lacked leadership when Vincent Kompany has been missing, which has been a lot. The centre-back has started just 12 of City’s 29 games this season and he won’t start on Sunday after suffering yet another calf injury in the 0-0 draw against Dynamo Kyiv on Wednesday. His central defensive partner Nicolas Otamendi also looks like missing out after sustaining a knock in that game. Kevin de Bruyne, Samir Nasri and Fabian Delph are also out.
Manchester United’s injury situation seems to be easing, but these things are relative: it’s still bad enough. Wayne Rooney, Luke Shaw, Ander Herrera, Ashley Young and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson are all out, while it’s probably still too early for Phil Jones as he seeks to recover match fitness.
City have won just two of their last nine games, a run in which they’ve picked up the Capital One Cup and reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League for the first time, while the gap between them and Leicester at the top of the table has grown to 12 points, albeit that Leicester have played a game more. United, four points further back, are in no better shape, Thursday’s draw against Liverpool completing a Europa League exit that gives them just the FA Cup to play for this season. They’ve won just three of their last nine games.
The derby at Old Trafford in October was a tedious 0-0 draw, each side managing just one shot on target, although Jesse Lingard did hit the bar with six minutes remaining. That, though, was with Kompany and Otamendi at the heart of the City defence.
THE RASHFORD QUESTION
There’s something slightly absurd about Marcus Rashford being put in this position, but after four goals in his first two appearances for the club, he hasn’t scored in his last five. Not only that, but recently he’s looked like what he is: a hugely promising 18-year-old trying to do a job that’s he’s not yet ready for. In an ideal world, his introduction wouldn’t have been more gradual, may not even have come at all this season. That said, his energy and pace could be just the thing to unsettle Martin Demichelis, assuming the occasionally cumbersome Argentinian is selected to partner Eliaquim Mangala at the heart of the City defence.
Louis van Gaal has a major decision to make as to whether to select him again – and if he does leave him out, it leaves few options but to move Anthony Martial to centre-forward, away from the left where he has been so effective. (And even Martial, it might be thought, would have benefitted from not playing quite so often this season).
USE OF TOURE
Criticism of Yaya Toure’s fitful performances have been a regular feature of this season. Put simply, he lacks the energy at 32 to get up and down the pitch as he used to, but playing as one of two holding players his tendency has been to drift forward, neglecting his defensive duties and exposing his back four. Away against Dynamo Kyiv, Manuel Pellegrini seemed to have found the solution, using him as the deepest-lying midfielder, with a brief to simply sit in front of the two central defenders, almost playing as a third centre-back at times, moving forward only very occasionally – although he did so to great effect later in the game.
That freed up to Fernando to press alongside him with Fernandinho highly effective in the sort of shuttling right-sided role that used to be James Milner’s hallmark. Toure hasn’t played quite like that since, but it may be the best way of protecting a rickety central defence.
City have looked vulnerable in wide areas all season, particularly on their left. Jesse Lingard played centrally on Thursday against Liverpool with Juan Mata on the right, but they presumably will switch over here to test either Gael Clichy or Aleksandar Kolarov against the pace of Lingaard.
On the other flank, where either Pablo Zabaleta or Bacary Sagna can be left exposed by Jesus Navas, Van Gaal must decide whether to use Martial, probably United’s most threatening player against Liverpool, or to move Martial to centre-forward and turn to Memphis Depay, who has shown signs of a return to form recently only to be sidelined by the return from injury of Martial.
It’s very hard to have any faith in either side on recent form. Neither has any fluency and that means that even as short as 1.85 there may be value in backing under 2.5 goals in the game. But the real value looks to be in United at 4.35.
They’re shaky and they could easily lose by two or three, but on the other hand, they’re capable or surprisingly sharp performances, as they produced against Arsenal. Given City’s bluntness, backing United +0.5 at 1.97 looks the cautious but sensible way to go.