Fellaini experienced his first Manchester derby in September, as Yaya Touré bossed things at the Etihad.
Manchester United take on local rivals Manchester City at Old Trafford on Tuesday, in a match that will hold massive significance for both sides, though for potentially different reasons. With little else in the league to play for, United will want to keep building the momentum built by their last two wins on the trot – a rarity this season – and to gain some measure of revenge for the 4-1 shellacking received at the Etihad in September. David Moyes will want to see an better performance than United’s last home game – a soul-crushing 3-0 reverse against Liverpool.
City are chasing the title, and will want to win to make up ground on Chelsea and Liverpool, as they now have three games in hand. We caught up with Rick Martin, Manchester City season ticket holder and former News of the World journalist to hear his views on the game, their season so far and the direction they’re heading in under Manuel Pellegrini. You can follow Rick on Twitter @rm23286.
1) What have you made of your season so far and is your manager the right man to lead you on?
Without wanting to incur the wrath of some of the loonies who frequent the Blue Moon forum, I’m still fully coming to terms with City being regular title contenders and the bookies’ favourites to lift the trophy in May. I wasn’t at the fabled York City away defeat on Boxing Day 1998 but I have been going to City since 1995 so I’m predisposed to expect the wheels to fall off at any moment. I’m not sure if that’ll ever go away – and if, actually, dominating will get boring after 20 years (United fans are well placed to answer that, I suppose). But putting all of that to one side, it’s unarguable that this has already been a reasonably successful season all things considered and given the Blues have already won a trophy – it’s more a case of how successful this season will be. Lift the Premier League in May and it’s easily City’s biggest ever year, even with the FA Cup and Champions League disappointments. Fall short and it’s merely the third most successful season in the past four, behind the 2012 title and 2011 FA Cup.
Regardless of where they go from here, Pelligrini cannot be seen as anything other than a sound appointment – the type of man, manager and level-headed influence the Club needed. While it was sad to see Bobby Manc go – the fact he turned City into trophy winners who regularly beat United home and away means he can expect a statue outside the ground at some point – it was clear that he’d come to the end of the road with the dressing room and the ructions caused by spats with Balotelli and Tevez (and probably plenty of others we don’t know about). This season, Pelligrini seems to have the players playing for him and has adjusted – not revolutionised, as some have said – City’s style to be more attack-minded and adaptable. He’s handled the usual Mourinho mind game bollocks with grace and dignity and made Pardew look an utter simpleton during the “old cunt” touchline spat. That said, there have been some questionable decisions which could cost him. For a start, it’s hard to ignore Martin Demichelis. I’m actually something of an apologist when it comes to this guy – he’s not played anywhere near as badly as people who haven’t actually studied his play would have you believe. He’s positionally astute, stepping out to see off danger. Pretty good on the ball and solid defending set pieces. But he has been caught out pace wise and I wonder if Pelligrini, new to the Premier League himself, didn’t under-estimate the speed of the English game when turning to Demichelis. I actually think that he was an emergency stopgap, intended as back-up for Pepe or Mangala, deals for both of whom fell through. In Demichelis, Pelligrini turned to someone he knew well from his time as Malaga rather than paying over the odds for a proven, top class Prem centre half (Koscielny or Skrtl would have fit the bill). Only time will tell if Stevan Jovetic was a sound move, but if you believe the rumours about homesickness, he’s another player who may not have been right for the Premier League. I’d rather forget the fact Manuel was seemingly unaware City needed to score another goal against Bayern to top their Champions League group.
Something that’s often overlooked is how infrequently City have been able to field their best side this season. Aguero’s had three spells on the sidelines with hamstring problems. Kompany was out for two months between October and November. Hart suffered the first major loss of form in his career (happens to all keepers, he’s been solid since returning). The fact that City are still in touch with a doggedly efficient Chelsea side and a Liverpool team with nominally the league’s most potent attack should be seen as success to this point.
Ultimately, the title is probably going to the last day with potentially both Chelsea and Liverpool still in the hunt – we’ll see then what Pelligrini and his early incarnation of the side are made of then. I wonder how United fans will feel looking on at this situation as the Reds secure Europa League qualification.
2) What did you make of the two matches against Barcelona?
The tie hinged on the Demichelis sending off. Play with ten men against nominally the world’s best team (there’s barely anything it in between them and Bayern, for me) and defeat is a certainty, rather than very likely with 11 men. I can accept that City are a level, if not a few levels, below the likes of Barca and it would have taken a freak set of circumstances – losing Messi to injury, a sending off, off colour performances from Xavi and Iniesta – for City to have gone through even playing at their maximum. I can see Pelligrini taking City to the level required to beat Barcelona within 3-4 years though.
3) Why has Alvaro Negredo gone off the boil recently? Who, when fit, should start up top most weekends for City?
He’s not been the same since picking up a shoulder injury against West Ham in the Capital One Cup semi a few weeks back. The frustrating thing is that he needn’t have been on the pitch at the time with City cruising. I think owning to a lack of options up front in recent weeks, he was probably rushed back from that injury sooner than he should have been and he’s not found his rhythm. Without a shadow of a doubt Negrado and Aguero are City’s first choice starters. As mentioned, the jury’s still out on Jovetic – we simply haven’t seen enough to make a full judgement. Edin Dzeko has a serious attitude problem in my view – even when he’s getting a run of games, you get the sense he doesn’t feel wanted and expects to be dropped when Aguero and or Negrado return. He should be approaching games intending to prove that he could be City’s first choice striker – but I think he lacks the attitude of a top player to think like that. My dad reckons he’s so disinterested he isn’t even putting that much effort when presented with chances – that he believes he’ll be off so doesn’t care about scoring goals any more. He’ll almost certainly leave this summer and flourish a step below at a Spurs or Everton level club where he’ll feel more involved.
4) It’s a pretty tight title race at the moment. Will you win it? Who is your biggest threat now?
Not too dissimilar to the last time City won the title, I think I’ll better be able to answer this after the last derby of the season. Beating United last time out was such a statement of intent and seemed to lift the whole team. Taking three points at Old Trafford, even against a weaker United side, would feel like a massive boost, as well as putting City within three points of Chelsea with two games in hand. As proven by the Villa game last week, Mourinho is really starting to feel the strain at the moment – Pelligrini’s calmness under pressure will be key.
It also hinges on how soon Aguero comes back from injury – as previously discussed, Negrado and Dzeko are misfiring to the point that our main goal threat at the moment is coming from deeper in midfield with Toure. If City had played with a fit Aguero all season, I think they’d be out of sight by now.
I’ve ruled Arsenal out of the running – cracking up as usual – but not Liverpool. How can you ignore such a free-scoring side? All three teams have winnable games on the last day – I expect City’s opponents West Ham to be safe by then and if Newcastle are already on the beach now they’ll be playing with beer guts and holiday weight gain when they play Liverpool on the last day. Cardiff may well need a win to stay up on the last day – so Chelsea’s task could well be the trickiest.
5) What have you made of David Moyes and Manchester United this season?
I think everyone expected a dip after Fergie left, but did anyone really expect this? United fans have almost defiantly stuck with Moyes – probably because they know it wasn’t expected that they would. I’ve really enjoyed watching United get beat in key games this season.
Arguably, Fergie should have started the rebuilding job a couple of years ago – United’s squad simply does not have quality running through it any more. He wasn’t helped by walking into the Rooney contract saga, Rio and Vidic should’ve been moved on last summer and Marouane Fellaini was a dreadful signing, right man, wrong team, wrong system. Maybe it’s a little premature to say, but I think the way Roberto Martinez has got his old Everton side playing exciting attacking, passing football suggests that Moyes only really knows one way – diagonal long balls into the box, knock downs, defensive football. Is that really the United way?
6) United have spent big on Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini, what did you make of the signings and will they be a success?
Mata is a United level signing – but the United of a few years ago. I think he’ll prove a success but only once a midfield has been built around him. Until then, I think you’ll only see flashes of his world class ability. As mentioned, Fellaini just isn’t a United player – the phrase ‘good feet for a big man’ has never been associated with United players. Play to his strengths and he’s unplayable – but I just cannot see United playing long ball football with Mata, Rooney and RVP in attack.
7) How do you expect City to line up on Tuesday? What United side do you think we’ll see?
Chelsea’s defeat at Villa last week changes how City will approach this one. With City now able to go three points clear by winning their games in hand – rather than level had Chelsea beaten Villa – they don’t need to go all-out attack to keep pace. Therefore, I think Pelligrini will be pragmatic and mindful of the attacking threat United can still possess and go 4-5-1. Hart obviously. Zaba. Demichelis will partner Kompany. Clichy will get the nod over the more attack-minded Kolarov (if City are losing by the 70th minute he’ll come on) at left back. In midfield, Fernandinho and Toure will be holding as usual, with Nasri, Silva and Milner playing behind Negrado. Again, if City were going all-out attack, they’d go with Navas over the more defensive-minded Milner. I see Navas having a part to play at some stage of the game, especially if City are chasing the game late on. As for United, there’s nothing to lose really – which actually makes them quite dangerous. So I’m expecting to see an attacking line-up featuring Rooney, Mata, Kagawa and Welbeck, with probably Carrick and Fletcher holding. As for their defence, it seems to be spin the wheel at the moment when it comes to predicting who’ll play – I’d guess it’ll be similar to the back four which kept West Ham out at the weekend. Will Smalling be fit? He’s looked good when I’ve seen him for England.
8) Who is the best City player you’ve seen? Also, best pre-2008 City player?
This is a difficult one to answer, so I’ll have to break it down per position. Goes without saying, but Kompany is a leader on and off the pitch and the world’s most complete centre half for me. Yaya Toure is the most dominant midfielder I’ve ever seen – can do everything, a total bully and added goals to his game this season. Aguero just pips Tevez as the best striker I’ve seen – just oozes class. I have to mention Tevez though as, a bit like Mancini as a manager, he was the player that kicked City on several levels – the first City player I’d seen who United seemed to genuinely fear in derbies and who squared up to United knowing he was going to do damage.
Best pre-2008 player – in terms of overall ability, I should probably say Gio Kinkladze. But I’m instead going to highlight Shaun Goater. Not technically gifted in any way but people overlook how good he was positionally. How often do you see shots not followed in, even now? He made a career from doing that – right place, right time 30 times a season. It’s often said he never did it in the Premier League but he actually had a goal rate of one in two in terms of starts in his one season in the Prem with City.
9) Who has been the best team and player you’ve seen this season other than City? Who has been your best and worst performer?
It’s hard to look past Liverpool and their front four of Suarez, Sturridge, Sterling and Coutinho – if not for Kolo Toure, they could could be points clear by now. I don’t need to tell you how good they’ve been as we’ve all seen it – pace, awareness, lethal finishing game after game. Henderson looks the player they thought they were buying and Gerrard has adapted well to his new quarter back role. It’ll be interesting to see if they’ve got the nerve to go all the way – how will Rodgers react when Mourinho starts to take them seriously and starts the mind games?
City’s best player has obviously been Toure – he’s gone up a level this season by adding regular goals to his game and he’s been that old cliché in most games – unplayable. Nasri’s been City’s most improved player – he’s finally back to his Arsenal best. The way he carries the ball and the interplay around the box is simply world class. He’d make a huge impact at United, not that he’d go.
Worst has been Dzeko for the reasons mentioned above – he’s just not in the right frame of mind. I also think they’ll buy a new left back and move Clichy and/or Kolarov on at the end of the season – they’re just not up to the level City are operating at these days and get targeted by opposition attacks. Garcia has been much maligned but has actually had a good spell recently.
10) Who out of United’s team would get into City’s in your opinion?
Very few. I don’t rate De Gea as a top keeper, nor Rafael at right back. Evra is over the hill. I think Smalling could have partnered Kompany this season but that City would still be replacing him with a world class centre back this summer. Mata is world class but wouldn’t play instead of Silva, who’s a level above. It’s unarguable that Rooney and RVP would play for any team in the world – but that said, I do think if it came down to a head to head, Aguero would play ahead of both of them.