Game of the Week

March 11, 2004
By Dale Johnson
(Archive)

Manchester City v Manchester United, Sunday 14.00

Manchester United's surprise exit from the Champions League will remain fresh in the memory as they prepare for the derby clash with City.

Last season this was the game that kick-started United's season as they embarked on a run which took them to the title.

But rather than making their first ever visit to Eastlands desperate to put their championship challenge back on track, their major concern is now surely securing an automatic return to Europe's elite competition.

Sir Alex Ferguson's negligence in failing to strengthen the defence during the transfer window, in the full knowledge that Rio Ferdinand would be out for the season, is becoming more apparent by the game.

And as his side's injury troubles mount the prospect of playing Manchester United does not seem as daunting as it did two months ago.

The purchase of Louis Saha, leading to a change in tactics to a two-pronged attack, has further exposed United's weaknesses at the back and the shaky form of England defender Wes Brown.

Although Brown put in a fine performance against FC Porto on Tuesday; he has been left culpable for a number of goals recently.

While the rash challenge on Fulham's Luis Boa Morte in the FA Cup may not have proved costly in the end, the way he allowed himself to be turned by the same player in the Premiership clash at Loftus Road cost United two valuable points.

That draw left them in third place on goal difference from Chelsea, and nine points adrift of a seemingly invincible Arsenal side with only 11 games remaining.

Mikael Silvestre is out for a further three weeks after picking up a knock on his ankle when blocking a shot in a practice match at the beginning of the week. Eric Djemba-Djemba is also on the sidelines with a broken rib picked up against Porto and is set to be joined by Christiano Ronaldo - who is very doubtful after suffering a thigh injury in the match.

To add to United's defensive woes, Gary Neville completes his three-match suspension for the sending-off he picked up against City in their FA Cup encounter and that incident may yet cause a hangover into this game.

The experienced England international was first booked for diving in the box and then shown a straight red card for pushing his head in the face of Steve McManaman - who was accused in some quarters of over-reacting.

Quinton Fortune is now out for the season, and the loss of Roy Keane to a hamstring injury has sent the preparations into chaos.

Keane was almost certain to play as a makeshift centre-back alongside Wes Brown, with Phil Neville and John O'Shea taking the full-back roles in a decidedly weak looking rearguard. But his withdrawal means United have only three fit, experienced defenders.

As such, O'Shea will have to move into the middle, leaving Sir Alex to ponder a left-back conundrum of rookie Danny Pugh or Ryan Giggs, who started his career in that position. It is most likely that the 21-year-old Pugh will be handed his first ever Premiership start.

And it is the defensive record which is most worrying for the champions. They have kept only one clean sheet this calendar year - in a goalless draw with Newcastle United - and have conceded ten goals in their last five games. Compare that to Arsenal and Chelsea, who have let in only four goals in the same period.

What was at one point the meanest defence in the Premiership now has many cracks, and Manchester City will be looking to exploit that.

Nicky Butt, Giggs and Paul Scholes are almost certain starters from those left in midfield, but Sir Alex must decide whether to hand Ole Gunnar Solskjaer his first start since returning from injury or stick with Darren Fletcher in support of Ruud van Nistelrooy and Louis Saha.

City have problems of their own, but of a very different nature. Their concern is not of a trophy-less season - but simply preserving their Premiership status for another term.

Nicolas Anelka slots past Fabien Barthez
GettyImages / GaryMPriorOle Gunnar Solskjaer (on floor), on his way back from injury, scores in this fixture last season

It goes without saying that Kevin Keegan remains under pressure as City stand only three points above the trap door. But despite a run which has seen them win only one of their last 16 games, there is still the feeling that they should have the ability to put a run together to secure safety.

The most worrying statistic is City's home form, having beaten only Aston Villa and Bolton Wanderers at their new City of Manchester Stadium since making the move from Maine Road. Their last home win, against Bolton, came almost five months ago on October 18.

It is often said that to avoid being dragged into trouble you have to be winning your home games, and that's what City are discovering to their cost.

But while United have injury worries all over the pitch, Keegan has only to deal with the loss of Anelka - a big loss though it is. He serves the last game of a three-match suspension for his dismissal against Arsenal, but that news is tempered by the return of Paulo Wanchope.

The Costa Rican striker has been out since December following surgery on a knee problem, but came through City's Senior Cup victory over Bury on Wednesday night with a clean bill of health and could be thrown straight into the derby alongside Robbie Fowler.

The prospect of a high-scoring encounter on Sunday is a very real possibility, as was suggested when the two sides met at Old Trafford in the FA Cup a month ago to the day. United ran out 4-2 winners but Fowler, ploughing a lone furrow with support from deep by Shaun Wright-Phillips, did enough to suggest they can trouble their more illustrious visitors.

City won this fixture 3-1 last season; Nicolas Anelka and Shaun Goater (2) for the home side with Solskjaer replying. But that was the first derby success for a side starved of bragging rights for years.

It is their only victory over United since they handed out a 5-1 humbling way back in September 1989, and they went through a patch in the 90s where they lost eight consecutive derby games, conceding 20 goals in the process.

But such are frailties of United at this moment in time that such domination seems doubtful.

City know they have to start picking up points on their own turf, and the high-octane atmosphere of the first ever clash at their new home may provide the impetus to at least gain a share of the spoils.

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