Manchester United will travel to the Etihad Stadium this weekend in the English Premier League to take on their fierce rivals Manchester City—a match that will carry with it plenty of emotion and meaning for both sets of players and managers.
The Premier League title race last season, a 6-1 drubbing to City in October last year, top of the table rights this year and ultimate bragging rights are all at the forefront as two great managers of the game, Sir Alex Ferguson and Roberto Manicni, will do battle this weekend once more.
We could not have asked for more dramatic matches last year between the two clubs, and if this year's form is anything to go by we will most likely not be disappointed this time around either.
Let's take a look at the five key battles that could ultimately decide the winner of the first Manchester derby this season, and perhaps directly influence the title race in the process.
Let's start with a classic one here—Manchester City's top goal scorer this season up against Manchester United's best defender given the injury to captain Nemanja Vidic.
Carlos Tevez has netted seven goals for the Citizens this year as well as four assists, and will be one of many attacking weapons for the Red Devils to worry about here. The Argentinian turns the ball over less than one time a game on average, and is becoming a genuine goal-creating threat as well this year—ranking third among City players for goal-scoring chances created per match.
The man tasked with stopping Tevez will be United legend Rio Ferdinand, who has stepped up in both performance and leadership in the absence of Vidic. United's defense is leaking goals at the moment, and if Ferdinand cannot post up big numbers in terms of tackles and interceptions like he has done this season (currently second amongst United defenders), then City could run away with this one here.
However, if Ferdinand can shut down Tevez both in terms of goals scored and chances created, then United will go a long way toward picking up all three points.
It might not seem like one of the more highly anticipated matchups, but Manchester City must find someone to shut down Antonio Valencia on the right flank—starting with their left fullback, whom Valencia will look to get after early in this one.
The Ecuadorian is one of the top wingers in the Premier League again this season and is a dynamic runner of the football, meaning that whomever City line out on the left flank—Pablo Zabaleta, Aleksandar Kolarov or Gael Clichy—must be switched on to not let Valencia get in behind.
They'll also need to be well-prepared to cut out the crossing game of Valencia—restricting the supply that the likes of Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney will need in the middle of the field.
City are strong in the middle and United do like to use the width of the pitch if possible—meaning that Valencia could be a key component for the Red Devils here.
Last week, Yaya Toure was contained by Everton's Marouane Fellaini—perhaps the first time that the Manchester City midfield maestro has been contained by anyone this season.
The Ivory Coast international is simply too dominant throughout the middle of the pitch to not cause teams problems, and Manchester United's Tom Cleverley, along with Michael Carrick, will no doubt have a tough time in the middle this weekend.
Toure will pressure the England international when in attack and defense, and it will no doubt be the youngster's toughest test so far this season.
I can also see Toure dropping back to an extent to try and cancel Rooney out of the game and vice versa, as the United striker-turned-midfielder helps out his central counterparts by dropping back and pressuring the likes of Toure and Gareth Barry.
Big game for Cleverley, though, this weekend.
The matchup between one of the top defenders in the Premier League and arguably the form striker of the Premier League is one bound to attract plenty of interest—and deservedly so, for it could well determine the outcome of this weekend's match.
Vincent Kompany, City's captain, has been their best defender for some time now and a menace to United in the process—famously scoring the goal last year that would ultimately give them a lead that they would use to win the league title.
The Belgian international is currently averaging over two tackles and two interceptions per game, as well as eight clearances. His turnover and dispossession rate is incredibly low—meaning that Robin Van Persie is unlikely to receive the gift that he got from former teammate Thomas Vermaelen when the pair met earlier in the Premier League season.
The Dutch international has netted 10 goals already for United this year—assisting four others—and has become the Red Devils' go-to target in attack this season.
His ability to get the better of Kompany will be crucial for Sir Alex Ferguson's men if they are to emerge with all three competition points in this one.
One final matchup—albeit not a direct encounter like Kompany against Van Persie—that could decide this game is the respective performances of Joe Hart and David De Gea, should the latter take the field for Manchester United.
The Spanish international has spent several games in a row now on the sidelines, though he is likely to return for Ferguson this weekend here—and it could not come at a more opportune time—with the veteran manager wanting his No. 1 goalkeeper as ready as possible.
England international Hart has chalked up the third most clean sheets in the league this year, whilst David De Gea has been able to record just the one so far.
According to The Score, Hart is currently averaging 12.09 shots against per goal whilst De Gea is at just 8.3—a statistic that could well turn out to be telling in this fixture.
One big save could be the difference between a point gained or three points gained and as we saw last year between the two teams, that could well turn out to be the difference between Premier League glory and heartbreak come the end of the season.
What matchups are you most looking forward to this weekend?
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All statistics are via WhoScored.com unless stated otherwise.