Monday’s title deciding clash between the two Manchester clubs will be both the culmination of the title race and the beginning of a rivalry that was reborn after Carlos Tevez jumped ship to Eastlands without forgetting to have a few not so nice words about his former employers. The rivalry has been a fascinating one to watch over the past few seasons and has produced some wonderful games with some truly dramatic moments. The signs are that the rivalry will only become even more heated after the next 3 set of fixtures which will see only one of the two set of fans being left with something to shout about.

      When you look back at how things have gone for both these sides this season, there are some quite incredible coincidences. Both teams got knocked out in the group stages of the Champions League and both got knocked out in the Round of 16 of the Europa League. Both teams also got knocked out in successive rounds of both cup competitions with City going one round further in the Carling Cup and United going one round further in the FA Cup. Both have been criticized for bringing back players (Scholes for United, Tevez for City) who ultimately did more good than people expected.  Not to be forgotten of course is the battle between the two sides for the Premier League trophy which has seen periods where both sides seemed to be running away with it only for it to come down to one decisive game at the Etihad Stadium.

      The gap between the two sides in terms of quality has been gradually declining ever since Sheikh Mansour bought City. United still remained a cut above for some time until last season which saw City win the FA Cup and beat United in the semi final at Wembley on the way as well. This was of great symbolic importance as it not only ended their long trophy drought but also finally gave them an important victory over United after a series of dramatic defeats. Finishing 3rd last season put them in the Champions League and the stage was set for them to become a serious title contender.

      With the decline of Chelsea and Arsenal’s difficulties in the past couple of seasons, both the Manchester clubs have become the dominant force in the league and the signs are that this may be the trend in seasons to come as well, something that Sir Alex Ferguson has noted -

“We have to get used to playing City in important games. They are not going away. The financial support they have means we will be playing them in a lot of big games: cup finals maybe, semi-finals — we have already done that last season — and had an important cup tie this season. If United and City are going to be contesting for league titles regularly, and I think we will be doing, it will become just as important as the Liverpool game. Maybe not in terms of the emotional part because the Liverpool-United games are emotional but certainly in importance. Probably at this moment in time it supersedes the Liverpool games in the sense that City are our direct opponents now.”

Man City Team Selection

     City will have Mario Balotelli back from suspension but he is unlikely to start given how well Tevez has done since his return. Micah Richards is a doubt for this game with a hamstring problem but Pablo Zabaleta is a very able replacement if he were to be unavailable.

     In terms of tactics and team selection, Man City will be the team to watch for 2 reasons –

1) They have the more versatile players. Nasri and Silva can play on either wing. Milner can play anywhere in midfield. United’s system has generally been very predictable since Paul Scholes’ return. Valencia being on the right makes United more direct rather than the fluidity that was on show at the start of the season.

2) 2 of the 3 possible results would favour United in the title race. City have to win the game to keep their title aspirations alive. Hence, they must find a way to not only counter United’s strengths but also exploit the weaknesses of the Champions.

    Mancini will likely continue with his recent combination of Aguero and Tevez up front which has rejuvenated their attack of late as they have scored 12 goals in their last 3 games. The big question mark in terms of team selection for City is whether to start Nasri or Milner on the left.

    Although the fundamental shapes of both sides are quite similar (4-4-1-1ish), it is the roles of both sets of wide players that differentiates the two systems. Both Nasri and Silva come inside quite a lot for City whereas United have a more direct threat in Valencia on the right.

City’s average positioning versus West Brom (from WhoScored) shows how narrow the front 4 for City were.

     Both of the past 2 encounters between these sides has seen two things –

1) The losing team having a central defender sent off.

2) The winning side taking advantage of the extra man by exploiting the wide areas (in different manners as mentioned above).

     City managed to adjust their shape much better in the second half of the FA Cup match which saved them from the sort of defeat they inflicted on United at Old Trafford earlier in the season. Valencia was kept a lot quieter in that second and this raises the question whether Mancini would employ Milner on the right to help counter United’s threat down the right hand side.

     It would indeed be a gamble to start both Nasri and Silva against a side so potent through the wide areas. But the counterargument would be that City need to attack United to win the game. The wise thing to do would be to look to try and stop Valencia and look to exploit United on the left (which was the area City exploited to great effect in the 6-1). A massive 50% of United’s total attacks came down the right hand side against Everton.

Man Utd Team Selection

      There have been reports that Jonny Evans (who has been excellent for the most part this season)  has not trained this week and may well miss the game on Monday. If he is unavailable, his most likely replacement would be Chris Smalling as the pairing of Rio Ferdinand and Phil Jones has conceded 8 goals in 3 games against the likes of Basel, Benfica and Newcastle (Jones has been in quite poor form of late in any case and it is quite unlikely that he’d start this game at any position).

      United’s team selections have been quite predictable in the second half of the season. Scholes and Carrick have forged a good partnership. Valencia has been ever present on the right and has linked up well with Rafael in attack. Ferdinand and Evans have formed a good pair at the back as have Rooney and Welbeck up front. The only change last week was the return of Nani from injury to take Ashley Young’s place on the left. Without the problems of fixture congestion due to early exits in most of the other competitions, United’s lack of depth in midfield has not been as exposed as it might have been otherwise. United have been cohesive and effective in the second half of the season which is the reason why even a draw here would be good enough to effectively seal the title.

      That being said, United still have some weaknesses that could be exploited, as David Moyes’ Everton showed last week. Paul Scholes has been extremely impressive since his return from retirement and has passed many sides to death. The issue with him and Carrick in midfield is that they are both not particularly mobile. Stopping Scholes from dictating the play would seriously affect United’s play. Basically, hard pressing is not something this United side fancies. Bilbao did this to great effect against United in the Europa League and both Norwich and Spurs caused United problems in the league by closing down the likes of Scholes and Carrick quickly (despite those 2 sides not being efficient enough to get something out of the respective encounters).

      Moyes set up Everton with 3 central midfielders with Fellaini operating in behind Jelavic. Fellaini was the reason why a normally low scoring Everton managed to score 4 goals at Old Trafford. He constantly managed to find himself in space between the United midfield and defence. United don’t have a true holding midfielder or even a strong physical force in there to deal with such a threat.  More problems were caused by Steven Pienaar drifting beautifully from the left.

      United could face similar sort of problems against City. Yaya Toure’s runs from midfield could cause problems and the front four for City are all good on the ball and can exploit any space between United’s midfield and defence (as highlighted earlier). This can be countered by United sitting deeper and looking to mainly hit City on the counter but that is something that United haven’t done in a while. In seasons past, United could have used the likes of Park and Fletcher to great effect in this game. Their energy and work rate were often key in big games. However, Park has begun to decline and has had a poor season while Fletcher is still struggling with ulcerative colitis.

       Ideally, Park could have been used on the left in this game to help out Evra against Silva. Nani will likely start on the left and he is fairly effective in his defensive duties but his movement inside from the left often leaves the left back, Evra, vulnerable and Evra’s defensive abilities are questionable in such situations.

                                                                           Possible shapes.

Conclusion

      Neither side is perfect and both teams will likely look to improve their squads in the summer. David Gill has come out and said that United could have “an interesting summer” while Roberto Mancini has said that City are going to do quite a bit of spending as well. Both sides’ frailties have been exposed in other competitions and this is the last opportunity for both these sides to give their fans something to take away from it.

      The game should have goals in it as I don’t expect either side to sit back. The key points would be –

1) How hard will City press?

2) Will City have someone close down Scholes regularly?

3) How deep will United defend?

4) Which set of wide players will have the upper hand on the day?