Can United’s newfound confidence dent City’s title aspirations?

Wayne Rooney's United will play the role of spoiler against Yaya Toure and Co.  

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The Battle for Manchester has the potential to define this season’s title race in England, but for the first time in quite some while, it is the men in red who are at the outside looking in.

When Manchester United host their cross-town rivals (live, Tuesday, 3:45 p.m. ET), they will not be shooting for a slot atop the pack, nor even a slot in the UEFA Champions League. A full 18 points off the pace and 12 points behind their so-called noisy neighbors, United have been rendered irrelevant in England this season, dealing a massive blow not only to the club’s ego but to the young tenure of manager David Moyes.

Manchester United have beat only one of the top-four sides this season — a surprise 1-0 win over Arsenal — and are heavy underdogs against a City side that pasted Fulham on the weekend 5-0 — when Martin Demichelis is scoring for you, you’re hot. City have three games in hand on leaders Chelsea, and if they collect full points from these games, will take over sole ownership of the league, making this derby a vital for them as well. Yet derbies are more than just games, and the history between these two teams is a tangled one.

Last time out, City walloped United 4-1, and could have probably added a handful more. United were wholly outclassed in the match, with Sergio Aguero scoring twice and Yaya Toure pulling the strings throughout. It was a comprehensive win that signaled the balance of power had changed in this city, and ominously for Moyes, it presaged a season of disappointment.

Aguero — like his opposite number, Robin van Persie — will miss this match due to injury but despite that, City come into the match with far more weapons at their disposal and on a roll to boot. City are also unbeaten in their last eight away league games, winning six of them, and have now won three straight heading into the match.

DRAWING UP CONCLUSIONS

But Moyes, who has seen his team scrape past Olympiakos to become an unlikely participant in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals and watched Wayne Rooney spark his side to a solid if expected win over West Ham, has remained defiant.

"€œObviously it means a lot more to the supporters and the city if you win a derby game," said Moyes Monday at the team’s press conference.  "We want to try and perform better in the bigger games than what we have done.

"I think we have got the level and we are not as far away as many people would have us and I have no doubt it will improve," Moyes continued. "We want to show we are still in there fighting. We will do everything we can to win. We go out to win every game, not just the derby game."

The problem is, United don’t seem to have the horses. When confronted with teams that can run, pass or press — such as Liverpool, who blew away United two Sundays ago — the Red Devils are exposed as a static side with but one player who can change a game. That man, of course, is Rooney, and if you contain and frustrate him, forcing him to drop back and collect the ball, you can pretty well neuter United.

And you would think that given the available personnel on the day, United are also coming up short in a key are: their defense. United will be missing a quartet of key players along with van Persie: Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Rio Ferdinand are all expected to sit out due to injury; Nemanja Vidic is suspended. City is only missing Aguero and Matija Nastasic; Vincent Kompany is available after serving his suspension.

HEAR US OUT

Still, Manuel Pellegrini tried to downplay the significance of the match somewhat, saying, "I don’t think we are favorites in any game. Just because Manchester United have had a difficult season it does not mean we are going to win. We have to go there and play a very good game."

That’s certainly true, and many blue-wearing Mancunians certainly remember many long years in which they weren’t even in the same league as the Red Devils, to say nothing of the same rarified air. Yet on paper, this should be a game in which City begin their climb back atop the pile, and United resign themselves to a year on the outside looking in.

In every position City are stronger, and in every sense of the game, the Sky Blues have shown themselves to be more adept. They can break with power and pace, they have a tricky playmaker in David Silva who United seem to have little answer for, and of course there is the irrepressible Toure, who has taken over more than one game by sheer force of will. And while you can rightly criticize Pellegrini’s tactics at times, it’s difficult to do so if you are using Moyes as your cudgel: the United manager has hardly proven that he knows how to win games at this level this season.

Still, this has been a season in which taking things for granted gets you in trouble. Arsenal fans took it for granted they would challenge for the title, Queens Park Rangers took it for granted that they would be promoted on the first go, and the less said about the assumptions Fulham’s new ownership made, the better. Take City, but don’t be surprised if, for a day, some of the old Old Trafford magic glitters again.