Defenses under pressure at Etihad

Sunday’s Manchester derby has been a cagey affair in recent years. With this in mind, Roberto Mancini and Sir Alex Ferguson meet this weekend with one thing in mind: the Premier League summit.

Manchester City vs. Manchester United (live, Sunday, FOX Soccer, 8 a.m. ET)

When looking at this crucial matchup, two key elements kept running through my head: defense and set pieces. This is good news for City, as neither have particularly been strong suits for the Red Devils this season. Last week, United’s defense was ravaged as they gave up three goals – two of which came off corners – by Reading. I repeat: Reading, who would be the worst team in the league if not for winless QPR.

When you look at United at this stage last season, they have allowed 10 more goals in all competitions than this juncture in 2011. Not only are they giving up goals, they’re doing it first: they have fallen behind 15 times so far in this campaign. While they’ve managed to recover in 10 of those games and get a comeback win, their luck is sure to run out eventually, right?

The Red Devils have obviously struggled to keep their opponents out of the net, and City compounds that problem with the power they have in their attack: just look at Mario Balotelli, Edin Dzeko, Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez. Yikes – not exactly a quartet that a shaky defensive core wants to face.

But the problems for the current league leaders don’t end there. United has quite a few injury concerns. Although he is close to a return to the pitch, Nemanja Vidic will not be healthy in time for Sunday’s clash. Antonio Valencia, Shinji Kagawa and Nani are all out, while Tom Cleverley is doubtful.

Another upside for City: when they play at the Etihad, it’s a borderline sure-thing for three points, and a win on Sunday would put them level on points, and in first – ahead of their rivals – with a better goal differential.

Historically, these derbies have been low-scoring affairs – especially at the Etihad, with just five goals in the last six Premier League matches between the two clubs there. We may not see many goals from the run of play, but there’s a good chance it will come down to a penalty kick. Since the start of the 2010 season, no two clubs have earned more penalty kicks than the Manchester duo.

Everton vs. Tottenham (live, Sunday, FOX Soccer Plus, 10 a.m. ET)

A little bit of info that has been lost in all the Chelsea drama, United’s come-from-behind wins and City’s issues in the C hampions League: Tottenham is up to fourth in the league table. In fact, that could even be third by the end of the weekend.

A ton of credit must be given to Jermain Defoe for Tottenham’s recent run of form. The England forward had three multi-goal games, and is already up to fifth on the scoring chart. But we must not overlook the impact of Gareth Bale. Many people say he’s the best player in the league right now, and it’s hard to argue with that. Plus, imagine how much better he could be if the referees stopped carding him for diving, and instead saw the fouls? Luckily for Everton, Bale is injured this weekend.

If Everton starts slowly – they have a league high of six goals conceded in the opening 15 minutes – an early Spurs finish could end this one before the Toffees have a chance to get going.

West Ham vs. Liverpool (live, Sunday, FOX Soccer 10:30 a.m. ET)

Is this the week Liverpool finally breaks into the top 10 in the league table? They have failed to do it so far, and the chances are they won’t make it happen this weekend – they’ll need lots of luck without suspended striker Luis Suarez, who has scored 10 of Liverpool’s 16 goals. Despite the loss of their leading scorer, the Reds received a big boost of confidence this week by advancing in the Europa League. However, I get the sense the extra games and travel will start catching up to them.

West Ham, on the other hand, is sitting on the right side of the top 10 standings and enter into this match with a lot of confidence after they smacked Chelsea around last week. Sam Allardyce knows that this game is a big one to help keep the Hammers’ momentum going, and possibly get them into the European conversation. (Yes, you don’t need your vision checked – I wrote that).

Arsenal vs. West Brom (live, Saturday, FOX Soccer 10 a.m. ET)

The Arsenal yo-yo is on the downswing despite securing a spot in the final 16 in the Champions League, but they can now switch their focus to the Premier League for a stretch. The big question I have for the Gunners: will they spend some more cash in January to make a legitimate push for real trophies?

So far, the Gunners are tenth in the league, but are just five points out of a Champions League spot. It’s a little crowded at the top of the table, and Arsenal could easily slide into the top four. They won’t have Lukas Podolski because of a hamstring injury, so it’s time for our Goals on Sunday crew to feature more strikes from Santi Cazorla, Gervinho and Olivier Giroud.

Sigh of relief

For the past few months, my FOX Soccer buddies and I have spoken about Barcelona’s Lionel Messi almost as if he was pitching a no hitter. We raved over his numbers, said he was the best of the generation, a once-in-a-lifetime talent, and so on. Then we would catch ourselves. We were all thinking, “he’s done so much in so little time, because he’s never been injured.”

Then Wednesday happened. It was almost as if we were yelling bingo when he dropped – but not a happy bingo; a loud, worrisome one. "Messi is down!" we gasped, all in unison. Our eyes were glued to the screen as we tried to will him up from the pitch. Thankfully, it is only a bruised knee, and the little genius can continue to awe us. But because of that moment, I will never again take Messi, or his health, for granted.