Man United, Man City playing for more than derby pride

BY Jamie Trecker • February 11, 2011

This is the sixteenth piece in our season-long survey of the big games this season in European football. Check out the archive archive for past installments, and stay with the Fox family all season long for in-depth introductions to the clubs, the players, and the history of the European game for American readers.

The Battle for Manchester kicks off again Saturday morning when United face City in one of England’s bitterest derbies (LIVE: Fox Soccer at 730 am ET.) With the flashy cash makeover of Manchester City, this battle between two immensely wealthy sides has suddenly become the biggest rivalry in Premier League football. And this is a critical meeting between two title contenders, with both teams needing nothing less than victory.

City despise United; United pretends not to even acknowledge their "noisy neighbors," as United manager Sir Alex Ferguson labels them. They’d better: for proud but aging United, this might be the moment where their title hopes are decided. And for City, this might be the game that signals they are more than just rich pretenders.

United currently lead the Premiership by four points but hit a speed bump last weekend when handed a shock 2-1 loss by bottom-feeders Wolverhampton. City, in third behind Arsenal and just five points back overall, can take a giant bite out of United’s title hopes with a win.

But for that to happen, City needs to show more resolve than in recent big matches.

When the two sides last met in November, they played to remarkably timid 0-0 draw at Eastlands. Both seemed more fearful of losing than willing to commit their resources to winning. The first half was especially forgettable, the second not a huge improvement as steel replaced silk, the strikers taking a definite backseat in a midfield slog.

City manager Roberto Mancini claimed that result showed that his team was on a par with their better-known neighbors. The reality on the day was the City never looked like testing Edwin van der Sar’s net and conceded large spells of possession to their arch-rivals. United, on the other hand, controlled more of the ebb and flow yet were unable to make their chances count: their best effort was a scissors-kick by Dimitar Berbatov well-saved by City 'keeper Joe Hart.

Since then, United have only lost twice: first was a 4-0 upset at West Ham in the Carling Cup; then came last weekend’s stunner at Wolverhampton that snapped their league unbeaten streak at 29. While few observers think that United has fully gelled, they are showing their historic late-season strength, with Wayne Rooney finally becoming a factor up top, Nemanja Vidic performing brilliantly at the back, and Berbatov having a player-of-the-year type of season.

City has been more erratic, losing to Everton and Aston Villa, drawing twice to lesser division teams in the FA Cup (Leicester and Notts County,) and until last weekend, enduring a three-match winless streak that was snapped by a persuasive 3-0 win over laggards West Bromwich Albion. Along the way there was a 0-0 draw against Arsenal in London that left neutrals condemning City's lack of attack and suggesting that Mancini's team was more hype than reality.

But, City is perhaps finally showing signs of maturity: Carlos Tevez, like Berbatov, is a fearsome striker this season, while the introduction of David Silva as his helpmate has been paying increasing dividends. While Kolo Toure remains a defensive liability, his brother, Yaya, has finally settled into a slashing midfield role to feed the front-runners.

But, on the eve of this derby, injuries and defensive weaknesses haunt both sides.

United will be without defensive key Rio Ferdinand, who injured a calf muscle prior to last Sunday’s game and could also be missing Jonny Evans (ankle). That could mean a start for Chris Smalling. United fans won’t be shedding too many tears over Evans, who has been revealed as out of his depth.

The young back Rafael has been solid under fire, but has also shown a tendency to give up bad fouls, and his growing reputation as a hacker is definitely hurting him with referees. Also possibly absent: United talisman Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, on duty for Mexico Wednesday in their friendly against Bosnia-Herzegovina in Atlanta. The match, then the transatlantic flight translates to a game-time decision.

City look to have a full squad if injured Micah Richards is cleared to play. Richards suffered a concussion after colliding with teammate Nigel de Jong against Birmingham a fortnight ago. City may also get a boost with Mario Balotelli back from a knee injury and participating in training, and definitely got help when de Jong and Tevez withdrew from the midweek international friendlies.

City’s problems remain in the heart of the park, with Gareth Barry consistently unable to influence game-play, James Milner looking like an over-rated flop, and Kolo Toure unable to fully handle the pressure down the gut. Hart is also showing signs of fatigue in the net, recently making some uncommon errors.

Another worry is the linkup play up high. New boy Edin Dzeko has yet to connect with Tevez, and was sat down Saturday against WBA. No one doubts the ex-Wolfsburg man’s talent as he potentially could give City the best attacking trident in the league but there has not been time enough for that transition to take place.

United have shown grit and guile all season long; City have shown flashes of brilliance and then curious apathy in equal measure. Which City shows up on Saturday might be the decisive factor.

Neutrals should just hope for a better match than last November's: with two teams of this caliber, there should at least be some memories to last beyond the 90 minutes.

Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclay's Premier League.

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