In a season as awkward and inconsistent as Manchester United is enduring, two wins in a row feels like a serious milestone. In searching for a third, the club faces a test significantly more difficult than Olympiakos and West Ham.
The first serious on-pitch embarrassment of David Moyes's reign was at the hands of Manchester City, when Manuel Pellegrini's side tore apart a lethargic away team at the Etihad Stadium. With the Scot's future arguably riding on his ability to prevent this from becoming the latest in a series of aborted recoveries, a repeat of that 4-1 humiliation would be disastrous.
City is not at home, however, where the team has been at its most frighteningly dominant this season, and there is no question that, on paper, United has serious talent at its disposal. So is there a way for Moyes to take revenge?
|MAN UTD TOUCHES v WEST HAM
|MAN CITY TOUCHES v FULHAM
|All statistics via Opta|
The first concern will be at the back. United was taken apart in September, with all four goals coming up to and including the 50-minute mark. With an injury crisis having forced Michael Carrick into makeshift center back duty against West Ham on Saturday, that does not bode well.
Rio Ferdinand, rested for that game, should return on Tuesday but was the worst player on the pitch at the Etihad, criminally culpable for the third goal and generally off the pace, failing to make a single interception.
The good news for United is that his chief tormentor that day, Sergio Aguero, has not won his fitness race and Alvaro Negredo will likely start as the lone striker at Old Trafford. While brilliant in September, the Spaniard has now gone nine games without a goal and looks low on confidence after a poor miss late in his side's 5-0 thrashing of Fulham on Saturday. If Ferdinand and Phil Jones can get the better of him early on, they could calm 'the Beast' – and they might find that fading captain Nemanja Vidic's continuing suspension is a blessing in disguise.
Arguably better than Aguero and Negredo in the 4-1, however, was Samir Nasri. The Red Devils struggled to deal with the Frenchman cutting inside from the left flank – he took more shots than Aguero and played three key passes, the joint-highest with Fernandinho - but, as a result of Aguero's injury, he was deployed as a more orthodox No.10 against Fulham, with David Silva on the left.
The duties that he carried out at the Etihad may be passed onto or shared with Silva on Tuesday, but Moyes will have Rafael available this time, as opposed to Chris Smalling, who still fails to convince as a natural right back. Even if City's attacks from that angle are not diminished this time around, United should be a little better placed to deal with them.
Most likely the biggest problem will come in the center of midfield. The Red Devils' failure to adequately recruit in that area is well documented but they look set to field the same pairing as in September – Carrick and Marouane Fellaini.
Both were outclassed by Fernandinho and Yaya Toure at the Etihad and the City midfielders are in better form now than they were then, highlighted by their goals against Fulham.
This might be less of an issue if so much of United's play did not go through the middle. Against West Ham, Fellaini and Darren Fletcher had 100 and 93 touches apiece, some distance ahead of the next busiest players, their attacking midfield trio of Ashley Young (67), Shinji Kagawa (67) and Juan Mata (66). The figures from the Etihad tell a similar story. With the ball flowing so frequently through the home side's engine room, Pellegrini's men will fancy their chances of disrupting that with their superior quality.
By contrast, City is more adept at sharing possession across the pitch. Against Fulham, the man with the most touches was center back Martin Demichelis (96) but Pablo Zabaleta (90) and Aleksandar Kolarov (76) had their fair share on either side and, further forward, Toure (87), Fernandinho (83) and James Milner (90) all ran him close.
Robin van Persie's absence up front might, oddly, offer some hope for United. The Dutchman was unavailable in September, too, but that was before the signing of Mata and the Spaniard showed the biggest glimpse yet at his true value on Saturday.
|MAN UNITED LATEST
Deployed as a No.10 at last after too many games stuck awkwardly out on the wing, Mata reveled in the greater space, completing 53 passes at 94 percent accuracy. In that position, he can offer the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that has so often been lacking at Old Trafford this season.
His role may be United's most important against City. Aguero's absence forcing Nasri more central has solidified the team somewhat but Toure and Fernandinho do still both enjoy a push forward towards goal and they can sometimes leave space behind the midfield. Rooney was United's best player at the Etihad thanks to his use of the slight cracks that they left open, operating in that No.10 position with Danny Welbeck the furthest forward.
City will have captain Vincent Kompany back from suspension but that could even play into United's hands if attacking in that way. Demichelis has taken much deserved criticism this season but the Belgian's red card showed that he is far from infallible – his foul on Nikica Jelavic was not the first time that he has been punished for pushing too far up the pitch. The home team's best shot might be for Mata to sneak into a gap behind the midfield and tempt Kompany into chasing either him or Rooney.
That, at least, would represent more of a game plan than Moyes has typically brought to his attack this season and the change of shape prompted by Van Persie's injury may prove to be a vital tactical happenstance.
These are, of course, 'mights' and 'coulds'. If the two teams play as they have all season – even if United brings the level of performance that saw the club beat Olympiakos on Wednesday – City should win comfortably. The team is certainly the favorite at Old Trafford for the first time in a long time. But, if United has learned from its haunting by Nasri at the back and if it can tap into Mata's match-winning quality, the club could yet spring a surprise.
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