Manchester derby features captains under pressure, eager new signings
This should be a moment of serenity at Manchester City, which got over its European hump with a dramatic, and important, win at home against Sevilla this week in the Champions League. After all, the Premier League leader has won its last two league games 6-1 (Newcastle) and 5-1 (Bournemouth), not dropped any points since the injuries to David Silva, Vincent Kompany and Sergio Aguero, while new signing Kevin de Bruyne has enjoyed a highly impressive start to life in England.
But this is City, and things rarely work like that there. First there was the interview that Yaya Toure gave to L'Equipe, in which he complained about his lack of recognition in England (he then played a decisive role in the win over Sevilla). Then captain Kompany started the last two games on the bench, although on Friday coach Manuel Pellegrini insisted this was not punishment for playing for Belgium after a month out with a calf injury, against the club's wishes.
"I don't have a problem with Vincent," Pellegrini said. "Every week I choose the starting XI that's best for that game. Other players must wait. It's exactly the same for all the players. I'm not punishing Vincent. I have no problems in my relations with Vincent."
Kompany has insisted he is fit and raring to go and the top-line numbers back him up. City has conceded one goal in the five-and-a-half games he's played this season; without him, it has conceded 11 goals in seven games with no clean sheets. Pellegrini said that Nicolas Otamendi and Eliaquim Mangala "are both playing very well," but he must surely drop one of them, probably Otamendi as he has yet to partner Kompany in this side.
In the early-season wins over West Brom and Chelsea, Kompany scored headers from corners, and it will not be forgotten that in April 2012, he scored the winning goal in the Manchester derby two games before City clinched its first title.
City has been reliant not just on Aguero, but also on Silva for his creativity, that in the past, losing both at the same time would be disastrous. Enter De Bruyne: the young Belgian, who has arguably been one of the most consistent players in this calendar year, has scored five goals and has four assists in his first nine appearances for City.
He showed with his last-minute strike against Sevilla that he can be a clutch player; his all-around game, coupled with the current struggles his former club Chelsea is having, makes you wonder if Jose Mourinho regrets the decision to sell him to Wolfsburg 20 months ago. (There are differing versions as to what really happened when he left Chelsea: some say Mourinho did not want him to leave, though he rarely picked him and afterwards criticized his attitude; while others say De Bruyne pushed for the move as he felt he wouldn't get a chance with Mourinho in charge.)
"A derby is something special, there will be a lot of atmosphere and high hopes for both teams. Hopefully we can play a good game and win over there because I think it is one of the main goals for the supporters," De Bruyne told the press earlier this week.
"If we can win there we know how it goes. The supporters will talk about it for half a season until the next game so hopefully we can win this win. It is a big deal for them."
The reason this particular derby is hard to call, though, is less because of City and more because of United, who under Louis van Gaal has wavered between listless and slow, and inspired and pacey. In the space of four days, we saw both sides of this coin: dynamic and smart in the 3-0 win at Everton, lethargic and struggling in the first half of the 1-1 draw at CSKA Moscow.
Van Gaal dropped Memphis Depay against Everton and in so doing, may have stumbled upon the most successful formula for the team: playing Anthony Martial wide left, Juan Mata wide right and Ander Herrera as the No. 10 behind Wayne Rooney. Herrera has not figured hugely in Van Gaal's plans: he started half of last season's matches but never as a No. 10, which is where his former coach at Athletic Bilbao, Marcelo Bielsa, felt was his best position. Herrera has a habit of saving his best for big games: he played behind Rooney in last April's 4-2 win over Manchester City, and just before that set up Juan Mata for his goal in the win at Liverpool.
The long-term solution for Van Gaal may be to play Memphis/Martial/Mata with Herrera behind but for now, club captain Rooney keeps his place in the team.
Rooney turns 30 on Saturday and while his performances this season have not been his best, it remains peculiar that England's record-goalscorer, and a player closing in on United records as well, is not more popular at Old Trafford.
Will fans really never forgive him for those contract-enhancing agitation after approaches from City (2010) and Chelsea (2013)? Is his love for boyhood club Everton really so wrong?
Like Kompany, Rooney has had some of his best moments in derby matches, not least his overhead kick winner in 2011, which helped United win the title and was voted best ever Premier League goal in the first 20 years of the competition. Sunday's game has it all: captains under pressure, expensive new talent wanting to make their mark, midfielders with points to prove and two coaches with title-winning dreams. Both sides, though, have shown enough weaknesses this season to make this a derby game that's impossible to predict.