This weekend’s Manchester Derby is arguably the biggest game in the Premier League season so far, with just three points separating Manchester City and Manchester United at the top of the table.
Both sides have flattered to deceive in a lot of their games but have now built a seven point buffer over the sides below them and are firm favourites to battle it out for the title.
With that in mind, Sunday’s game at the Etihad Stadium could prove to be a massive psychological boost for whichever team comes out on top and the outcome will have a lot to do with how City boss Roberto Mancini sets up his team.
The Italian has regularly chopped and changed both his formation and personnel, and is seemingly unable to settle on a first choice strike force.
Carlos Tevez has been used sparingly in recent weeks, suggesting that he will be one of those deployed from the start against United.
It will be interesting to see whether Mancini opts to use Edin Dzeko or Mario Balotelli as opposed to Sergio Aguero in a bid to exploit United’s defensive frailties in the air which were there for all to see against Reading in the first half on Saturday.
The Royals scored from a cross and two corners, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Mancini decided to pack his team with height, including the likes of Javi Garcia, who proved his ability to threaten from set pieces with a goal on his debut against Stoke City.
The key man for City is Yaya Toure, a player who has come in for criticism in recent weeks for his lack of influence on games.
Against Everton he attempted more passes than any other player on the pitch (95) at a completion rate of 83%, but that percentage dropped considerably in the final third as he was 27 from 38 (71%).
While goals and assists are a very disingenuous way of measuring a player’s impact, Toure hasn’t scored since 1 September against QPR, and has set up just one goal since the opening day of the season.
One of the biggest problems for Manchester City against Everton was the lack of natural wingers to support full backs Maicon and Aleksandar Kolarov (replaced early on by Pablo Zabaleta).
Both Samir Nasri and David Silva like to play centrally, and this gave Everton plenty of room to manoeuvre out wide.
Indeed, the Toffees’ goal came directly from Baines being afforded too much space and his deep cross was converted by Marouane Fellaini at the second attempt.
Baines got forward a lot in support of Steven Pienaar, who was playing on the left wing for the most part, and the two combined for a total of 16 pass combinations, the highest on the pitch.
Somebody who could have prevented that sort of link up play is James Milner, currently absent with a hamstring injury sustained in the win over Wigan last Wednesday.
The England international plays a disciplined game and covers a lot of ground, and he played 90 minutes in the famous 6-1 at Old Trafford last season, providing Micah Richards with plenty of support against the attacking threat of Patrice Evra and Ashley Young.
If fit then Milner should start in place of Samir Nasri who attempted just one tackle in 90 minutes against Everton and isn’t renowned for his defensive abilities.
At this stage it’s highly unlikely that Mancini will begin the game with his much debated three at the back formation but if City are struggling then don’t be surprised to see an alteration in and around the hour mark.
However, the worry is that United possess forwards who could easily pick apart the system in a similar fashion to how Real Madrid went about it in the opening 20 minutes of the Champions League game a few weeks ago when Cristiano Ronaldo, Angel Di Maria and Karim Benzema created numerous chances.
In Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, United have two strikers who can pull defences apart in a similar fashion, while Ashley Young looked excellent in the first half against Reading.
Van Persie was relatively quiet at the Madejski Stadium, attempting only 21 passes compared to Rooney’s 55 and Young’s 59, but he still managed four shots and one goal.
With Matija Nastasic expected to replace Joleon Lescott alongside Vincent Kompany for the game, Manchester City will be playing with a Manchester Derby debutant up against one of Europe’s most clinical strikers.
City’s home form is fantastic and they are unbeaten at the Etihad Stadium since 20 December 2010 when they went down 2-1 to Everton, but Manchester United will no doubt use that as extra motivation in their bid to move six points clear at the top of the table.