Manchester United finished 2012 at the summit of the EPL, seven points clear of Manchester City—does it follow that the Red Devils have the upper hand over their cross-town rivals in 2013?
Last season proved that seven points is certainly not an insurmountable lead—especially with half the season still left to play. There are, however, a few pointers that suggest this year’s colour will be red.
Goal difference was the difference last year. So Sir Alex Ferguson made a bold step to rectify that problem at the start of this season. The £24 million acquisition of goal machine Robin Van Persie was in stark contrast to United’s recent transfer policy regarding ageing players. A surefire sign that Sir Alex knew a guaranteed quick-fix was required, not a long term plan.
Signing Van Persie ahead of City was also a clear statement of intent—had he gone to City, the seven points or more could easily have swung in favour of the Blues.
So, United have added more firepower to boost goal difference—what of the reigning champions Manchester City?
Pressure seemed to get to them last season at the first time of asking and they appeared to implode just after Christmas, allowing United to catch and overtake them.
Once the Reds had streaked into a lead, though, the pressure was off. City rallied and gained a true momentum—the kind that could only come to those lucky enough to be given a second chance at glory. It pushed them over the finishing line.
That momentum has not continued in to this season. City have drawn too many games. They have struggled in matches that they would have won with ease last year (vs. Reading last month, for example). What could be the reason?
Roberto Mancini made it clear that he wanted to spend more money on his team in the last summer transfer window – his major target was Robin Van Persie. Mancini admits that Van Persie is the difference between the Mancunian sides at the moment and rues his failure to capture the Dutchman.
With all the fervour of a man who wasn’t going to let the money in his hands go unspent, he splashed out on Jack Rodwell, Matija Nastasić and Javi García. All who have barely made a positive impression on the side.
The arrival of Nastasić, indeed, broke up the impressive Joleon Lescott/Vincent Kompany defensive partnership that was so integral to City’s success last season. Lescott returned alongside Kompany recently for the game against Stoke City and put in an assured performance giving Mancini food for thought in the coming months. City fans would rather see him back in defence than used as an emergency substitute centre-forward as he was in the Boxing Day defeat at Sunderland.
Whispers in Manchester that Robert Mancini is trying the patience of fans, players and board with his erratic team selection and with his Mario Balotelli obsession are growing. (Although the recent training ground flare-up between the two could suggest their relationship is at breaking point.) He doesn’t appear to know his best striking partnership and his rotating of the excellent forwards at the club are frustrating at least.
Back at United, their defence is finally recovering full fitness and Sir Alex appears to have settled on David De Gea as his first choice goalkeeper—which should begin to stabilise and slow down the shipping of so many goals.
And even with Wayne Rooney injured, Javier Hernandez and Robin van Persie have continued to provide goals. Patrice Evra seems to have responded to the arrival of Alex Buttner very positively and has also chipped in with goals this season.
A real positive for United, away from the spotlight that the “star” players enjoy, is the form of Johnny Evans and Michael Carrick. Both appear to be the first names on Sir Alex’s teamsheet at the moment and have provided much stability whilst the names around them have been chopping and changing.
It still remains that the two teams are tantalisingly even. Therefore, the Manchester derby match last month is the only clear barometer to judge their current positions—and has parallels to their respective seasons so far.
In that game, United were a clinical goal threat even when not playing well; they displayed tremendous team spirit. They were, however, susceptible to leaking goals under pressure.
The Manchester City side was a little more disjointed than last season. Joe Hart did not have quite the same impenetrable aura about him. Roberto Mancini’s team selection was questionable – not using Lescott (even when Vincent Kompany left the field injured) and Balotelli starting. They do still have the most feared squad in the land, though, easily capable of mounting a fightback. Which they did.
In that match at the Etihad Stadium, however, a certain Dutchman stepped up to the plate and gave United the upper hand. Just.
A metaphor for the league, perhaps?