Andy Gray on the Manchester Derby
Is the battle for this season’s Premier League title already a two-horse race?
”Not quite, although it’s certainly shaping up that way. If Chelsea find their form – and that’s a big if – then they have enough good players to fight their way back into the shake-up. If they can get John Terry and Frank Lampard back quickly, then their experience can see them get involved.
”We don’t know quite how Tottenham are going to do, although the signs are good from Andre Villas-Boas and his squad, and they are only a few points behind the top two. Arsenal are probably too far behind to figure now, but should still be thinking about the Champions League places. But for the title itself... well, it would be very surprising if both United and City were to drop enough points to let anybody else in. I don’t think either are playing that great at the moment, but they’re still getting the job done.”
ON MANCHESTER CITY…
City remain unbeaten, but are drawing too many and not playing that well. What are they lacking?
“City have lost a bit of sparkle this season; it may sound like a daft word, but they’ve lost a little charisma from their football. The creative side of their game is not as good as it was last year, but opposing teams are now conscious of what they’re up against and more defensive than they might have been last season. History shows us that it is difficult to win back-to-back titles, of course, and I think City are finding that out this season. They are unbeaten going into December, though, which is still a fantastic achievement. And a win on Sunday would put them level on points with United. After 16 games, I think they would take that.“
Where has that charisma been lost?
“I don’t think Yaya Toure has had a good season, for a start. He’s had flashes – most notably away at Real Madrid in the Champions League – but he’s only done it occasionally, and not commanded games the way he did last season. I think part of that has come from the loss of Nigel de Jong alongside him in midfield. I think maybe City didn’t know what they had with de Jong – they thought Javi Garcia might be the man to take over in there, but this league is a tough one to come into and it hasn’t really worked for him.
“Further forward, they can also look a little narrow – particularly when they play Samir Nasri and David Silva, who often start in the wide areas but like to tuck in. The result is that they don’t play with much width high up the pitch, unless the full-backs get there; James Milner can give it them, but they were happy to let Adam Johnson leave and have hardly played Scott Sinclair since bringing him in. I’d like to see them play Sinclair more.“
What is City’s best strike partnership?
“If it was my team, I would always try to get Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez on the pitch at the same time. They’re the most mobile and work better together than any other combination, but the problem is that when Roberto Mancini plays both he always has one out wide. He might choose to go with three at the back this weekend, though – that is something he has tried quite a bit this season, and it does allow him to get two men through the middle up top.“
Does Roberto Mancini need to win the Premier League to keep his job?
“I think he needs to finish in the first two. It’s difficult to win this league in consecutive years, as I’ve said, and the disappointment of another early exit from the Champions League has put the pressure on him. But if City want a man to lay down some roots, to get the club moving forward, then changing the manager all the time won’t give them that. People will argue that Chelsea have won a load of trophies while changing their manager every 18 months, but I think City want stability – so unless a manager comes up who they desperately want, I don’t see any reason for Mancini to be going anywhere.“
ON MANCHESTER UNITED…
Can United really keep rescuing games after going behind?
“The honest answer has to be no. I mean, how they’ve got away with it so far is incredible, and a great credit to them; the ability to win games when you’re not playing well and being poor defensively is what wins you titles – but they are surely going to have to stop conceding so many opening goals. They lost the first goal against Everton, who are a good side, and didn’t get back into it; they went behind at home to Tottenham and couldn’t recover; and the same happened away at Norwich. As the season goes on, being continually leaky at the back does put an awful lot of pressure on those guys up front. Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and the rest have done remarkably well – they’ve had 15 different scorers in the Premier League this season, which is absolutely incredible – but Sir Alex Ferguson will still be concerned.“
Does it matter how many they concede as long as they keep scoring more?
“Oh yes, Sir Alex won’t be enjoying this. Coaches love winning games, of course, but they don’t like losing goals – and winning 4-3 at Reading last weekend will have been horrendous for Fergie. He’d think: ’Why on earth are we putting ourselves through this, getting into a position where we’re having to chase the game? We should have control of the football, be running them all over the pitch and winning two or three-nil.’ They’re not, though – they’re winning 4-3, and he won’t like that. And he knows full well that if they go into the Champions League knockout stages defending like that, then they’ll go out.“
Is the defence solely to blame, though?
“When teams are conceding goals, it’s all too easy to blame the back four and the keeper – but if the rest of your team isn’t helping the defence, then they are always going to be vulnerable. Maybe it’s the case that those in front of the defence – which has missed Nemanja Vidic, but otherwise been a pretty consistent line-up – aren’t doing enough; if every attack against you is getting at your back four, then eventually they are going to creak. If you can stop attacks in midfield, great; stop them higher up the pitch, even better – but opponents are getting to United’s back four too many times this season. At this level, in this league, you need protection from everybody across the pitch – and I don’t think United are doing that well enough this season.“
Finally, the big question: how do you see Sunday’s game going?
“The home team doesn’t often lose in these big games. City are due a defeat, that much is obvious, but they have a fantastic record at the Etihad and will want to continue that. Fergie absolutely loves getting results against the teams that are his biggest opponents; we’ve seen him do it time and time again, but I just can’t see City losing this game. If Mancini picks the right side, and the players go out and play at the top of their game, then I think they have more matchwinners than United at this moment in time. If they defend properly, then I think City will win the game.“