It had to happen eventually and it has. The roles have swapped and for the first time in almost three decades City arrive at Old Trafford as firm favourites. It’s them chasing the title (after dreams of a Quad…ops Treb…have been stupendously dashed) and it’s United who have got nothing else to play for if not local pride and, small time though it might sound, the chance of scuppering City’s title bid.
The caveat to that, of course, is that beating City tonight might hand Liverpool a significant boost in the title race and if it came down to City and Liverpool, I think we both know who we’d rather see lifting the trophy – spoiler alert: they don’t play in red and they don’t revel in self-pitying – but it’s hard to fathom the prospect of going into a derby without wanting to win it.
United go into tonight’s derby in much better shape than they were at this stage a week ago, but still perilously prone to be on the receiving end of a hammering, one that could make the feel good factor derived from the last two games evaporate.
There are multiple reasons for that: David Moyes’ record in big games remains abysmal and despite the comeback against Olympiakos and the comfortable success at West Ham.
Furthermore, City,who are looking to win three consecutive league derbies for the first time in 44 years, are again scoring goals for fun and even though Sergio Aguero is injured and Alvaro Negredo hasn’t scored in almost two months, they remain a formidable force going forward, particularly considering that Yaya Toure has scored more goals this season that the whole of United’s midfield has in about a decade.
As if that wasn’t enough to test our collective optimism, City arrive at Old Trafford determined to close the gap with Chelsea, while United have nothing left to play for this season, apart from pride – a luxury that has been at a premium for large parts of this beleaguered campaign.
And yet, perhaps unwisely so, the last two matches have offered more than a glimmer of hope, for United have looked more like their old selves, taking the game to their opponents, rather than retreat in their shell and waiting for the inevitable onslaught, as they had done so often this season.
RVP’s absence could prove costly, but Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata on Saturday showed that even such a dark cloud might have its silver lining, in the shape of the Spaniard pulling the strings from his favourite number 10 role, rather than being exiled on the wing.
Rooney and Mata have the movement and the skills required to test Vincent Kompany, a man whose petulance and bitterness have become almost as indisputable as his talent on the pitch.
David Moyes might not have found it otherwise, but RVP’s injury has probably allowed him to stumble upon a efficient formation and if the United manager manages to somehow get Shinji Kagawa to fulfil his potential, than he can only be commended.
But, as previously mentioned, this has been a season of false dawns, therefore it’d be wise not to get our hopes up too much, as Moyes might well reshuffle his team selection, while Kagawa could decide to let the game pass him by.
Michael Carrick was excellent at the back against West Ham, but United will need him back in midfield alongside Maruoane Fellaini if they’re to curb Toure and Fernandinho’s influence.
Fellaini had an absolute nightmare at the Etihad earlier this season – truth be told, just about everybody else wearing a red shirt did – but has shown signs of improvement and could be a factor against City’s midfield.
The prospect of Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand fronting Samir Nasri and David Silva is simply terryfing and United’s vulnerability at the back makes their approach even more important, for while City have got everything to lose, United could almost throw caution to the wind.
In fact, let’s hope we do and that Moyes asks – rather, demands – his players to go for it, for a win tonight could prove to be a hugely important step forward ahead of the next two weeks. And, perhaps, of his Manchester United career as a whole.