Manchester United take on Manchester City this weekend in what is unquestionably one of the biggest matches of the season so far. Several weeks ago, the result of this match would have been a foregone conclusion. But things aren’t quite so clear cut now.
That’s because it’s Manchester United who come into the match as the in-form side. The Red Devils are unbeaten since their humiliating 5-3 defeat to Leicester City in September, and rescued a draw from the jaws of defeat against runaway Premier League leaders Chelsea last weekend.
Manchester City, on the other hand, have lost their last two fixtures against West Ham and then Newcastle United in the Capital One Cup on Wednesday night. Another defeat - to their local rivals, of all teams - could effectively lead the Citizens out of the title race. And serious questions would be then asked about Manuel Pellegrini.
Three stars to drop out
Victory for Manchester United could lift the 20-time English champions back into the top four - so how will Louis van Gaal line his side up to record a shock victory this weekend?
The veteran Dutch coach is expected to make several changes from the side than drew 1-1 with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last weekend, with no less than three stars dropping down to the substitutes’ bench.
- Man United can leave Pellegrini close to the sack
- Radamel Falcao in contention for Man City clash
- Paul Scholes urges Van Gaal to drop Juan Mata
Jones in for Rojo
Marcos Rojo endured a tough afternoon against Jose Mourinho’s side last weekend and could be replaced at the heart of Manchester United’s central defence, alongside Chris Smalling, by Phil Jones - providing the England international has made a full recovery from his shin injury.
Other than that, the back four will stay the same, with Rafael and Luke Shaw occupying the right and left full-back positions, respectively.
United were thrashed 4-1 by City in last season’s corresponding fixture, and it’s important the visitors pack their midfield to avoid being overrun by the likes of Yaya Toure and Fernandinho.
United to pack midfield
This could mean that the revitalised Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera start in central midfield, with Daley Blind sitting behind them protecting the back-four. Lightweight duo Adnan Januzaj and Juan Mata will also drop out, with Angel di Maria selected in the No. 10 position.
Di Maria’s work rate is fantastic, and the Argentina international will essentially double up as a third central midfielder, but with the freedom to roam and cause City’s defence damage on the counter-attack.
Rooney and Van Persie upfront
Van Gaal’s final dilemma is who to play upfront. Robin van Persie has failed to impress this season, but should keep his starting place after his last-gasp equaliser against Chelsea. The Dutchman is likely to start alongside Wayne Rooney, who returns from his three-match suspension.
Rooney will drop deeper, into the number ten role, on the occasions that Di Maria pulls back into central midfield. Radamel Falcao, meanwhile, will be a second-half substitute.
Manchester United: Predicted line-up
De Gea; Rafael, Jones, Smalling, Shaw; Blind, Herrera, Fellaini; Di Maria, Rooney, Van Persie
Manchester City 2-2 Manchester United