Manchester United's fixture list, albeit daunting, has given them an opportunity to cement their place on the log by directly impacting on the results and form of their rivals. The victory over Tottenham effectively ended the London club's Champions League hopes while defeat of Liverpool at Anfield also effectively took Brendan Rogers' side out of the equation for the elite berth. It would take a cataclysmic collapse by one of the current member of the top 4 to let them back in.
Going forward, the challenge has been to look up rather than down on the log. United were therefore able to capitalise on the awful form of our noisy neighbours last week to move into a season-equaling high third place in the standings, a point off second place. With the gap between second and fourth a matter of a couple of points, United have a job on their hands to next seal third place.
What an opportunity then that Louis van Gaal and his side have on their hands this weekend. City are rocking, rattled at how far off the pace for the title they have fallen. They have lost the invincibility about them that helped them put away sides with ease. After dominating this fixture in the league for the last few seasons, City look vulnerable heading to Old Trafford on Sunday and it's a chance you feel Manchester United ought to take.
Beat City, and suddenly United will have created distance between third and fourth. It is a rarely discussed topic but fourth place is only half a ticket to the Champions League. The new draw format of the qualifying rounds means you have a double header against a very decent European outfit at the start of August. Anyone who saw Arsenal take on Besiktas earlier this season to earn their place will have known that the Gunners left blood on that pitch to come away with a 1-0 scoreline on aggregate.
The point is though that when it comes to the final reckoning, getting third place will be an even better achievement than merely making it into the top 4 places. That status will be on the line this Sunday.
As mentioned City have triumphed at Old Trafford more often than any other side recently. They will know exactly how to play at Old Trafford. Their 4-4-2 system, despite working against them this season, can establish dominance in games when the opposition stands off them. For all their troubles, City are the league's best side at keeping the ball. It's a trait that should make for an interesting spectacle come Sunday because Louis van Gaal has his United side using ball retention as a means of keeping the opposition at bay. It means the side that is more effective in their moments of thrust shall do well in the column of the most important stat---the score. United have been mixing it up well lately in terms of executing their chances by method of precision as well as having the agricultural nous of Marouanne Fellaini to mop up set piece opportunities. Fingers crossed that continues.
Yet again, the expectation is that the manager shall stick to the same players and the same formation that has worked well for us recently. The suggestion is to include Angel Di Maria in the side from the start but one has to understand that until confidence in the team is restored to unshakable levels, United cannot go into games of this magnitude with a style that easily gives the ball back to the opposition. Yes, Di Maria is the embodiment of risk and all at United but you only had to see the difference in that second period at Anfield when he came on to realise the difference having the ball and losing it cheaply can do. He has been coming on and contributing an assist which makes him quite the weapon to have on the bench for the last 30 minutes. It is for the same reason that Valencia (who has been unsung this season despite holding his own) has been a safe bet for LVG in that right back position for all the talents and abilities of Rafael. van Gaal is not a poker player, he is a scientist and so will not throw caution to the wind when he has a tried and tested formula available. It's all because United are currently still fragile in terms of confidence. We are not yet a team where for instance in bad times the goalkeeper and midfield can say they trust the defence. Therefore, the soldiers that can be trusted to strictly execute the manager's instructions shall be trusted for the most important of assignments. It's that simple.
The season implications aside, this is a derby above all else. There has been a psychological shift of superiority that has been bestowed upon our rivals since Sir Alex retired. Sunday is an opportunity to address that at a time when there is a genuine feeling among us and indeed them that United have turned a corner and are re-charging the machine that was so desperately damaged in the earth-shocks and tremors that rocked the foundations of the club when the great Scott departed.
The saying back in August was that the team that finishes above City would win the league. Well in hindsight, we might not win it even if we finish above them but we could yet win the mini-league of Manchester and restore our lost pride on the pitch against them.