Manchester United have come through the toughest period of their season almost unscathed and now head into the final 11 games of the 2011/12 Premier League just 2 points behind league leaders Manchester City.
Having lost back-to-back games against Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United at the turn of the year, Manchester City can be forgiven for expecting to have opened up a bigger lead over their local rivals at this stage.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s side had fixtures at Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham and a home tie with Liverpool between mid-January and the first weekend of March. During the same period, Roberto Mancini’s side were hosting the likes of Tottenham, Blackburn and Bolton Wanderers. Whilst City have only dropped points once since United were thrashed at Newcastle, the pressure put on them by Manchester United must be coming to its forefront.
Manchester United, as they so often do have hung in there, winning 6 of their last 7 in the league. The one time they didn’t was when they battled back from a 3-0 deficit at Stamford Bridge to force a 3-3 draw. A valuable point.
Danny Welbeck scored the winner in the final 10 minutes at the Emirates in January, Wayne Rooney scored a brace to see of Kenny Dalglish’s side and last weekend Manchester United won 3-1 at White Hart Lane during a tough spell for Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham. One result that cannot be forgotten, which came between those two last results mentioned, was Ryan Giggs’ 90th minute winner at Carrow Road. Just one of the many examples of Sir Alex Ferguson’s side fighting ‘til the end, and winning it late on once again.
Manchester United host West Bromwich Albion this weekend following a tough home loss to Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League on Thursday night. Roy Hodgson’s side have the potential to cause a stir given his Baggies are playing well; winning 3 games in a row under their English manager since the resignation of Fabio Capello from the England national team.
Manchester City face the tougher test this weekend, and have a tougher fixture schedule on paper between now and their home game with their neighbours at the end of April. A trip to Swansea City is on the cards for Mancini’s side, whom are staying in Lisbon for a further two days following their Europa League defeat to Sporting, before flying directly to South Wales.
I do have to question their preparation for their game in Swansea, regardless of it begin a relatively short flight on the same time zone from Lisbon.
Following a home game with West Brom and then a trip to the Basque region of Spain, Manchester United face Wolves (away), Fulham (home), Blackburn (away), QPR (home), Wigan (away), Aston Villa (home), Everton (home) before their trip to the Etihad Stadium on Monday 30 April.
After Swansea, Manchester City face Chelsea (home), Stoke City (away), Sunderland (home), Arsenal (away), West Brom (home), Norwich (away) and Wolves (away) before the Manchester derby. Advantage United?
David de Gea has come good between the sticks over the past few games; from his injury time save from Juan Mata’s free kick at Chelsea, a top drawer save to deny Emmanuel Adebayor at 0-0 and then a number of excellent saves versus Athletic Club midweek. The defence in front of him wasn’t particularly impressive, but Jonny Evans has stepped up in his last two games, despite conceding 4 goals in those 180 minutes.
Earlier this week, Sir Alex Ferguson was praising the partnership of Evans and Rio Ferdinand; a solid partnership something crucial as we head into the business end of the season. Chris Smalling picked up a knock midweek, and should he not feature at right back, Ferguson has Phil Jones to look upon should he punish Rafael for ball-watching that cost United their 3rd goal on Thursday.
In midfield, Antonio Valencia still has a couple of weeks on the sidelines. The Ecuadorian made an impressive start to 2012, and should get plenty of match practice before the big game at the end of April. In the meantime, Nani and Ashley Young running the wings haven’t been a bad option for the defending champions. The latter scoring a brace during a 3-1 victory at Tottenham on 4 March.
Wayne Rooney is going through a good scoring spree at the moment; 5 in his last 3 Premier League appearances and his first Europa League goals midweek. Javier Hernandez has scored a couple in his last few league outings, but Danny Welbeck is without a goal since his winner versus Arsenal in the league.
Vincent Kompany is expected to be out for around 10 days, meaning he’ll miss the trip to Swansea, the second leg of their Europa League tie with Sporting Club, and potentially Manchester City’s home game with Chelsea on Monday 19 March. Both Joleon Lescott and Kolo Toure are available to Mancini, meaning they won’t necessarily have to risk playing Stefan Savic. The Italian manager has said Micah Richards will return on Sunday.
With the sun starting to come out across England, perhaps David Silva can get back to the form he found at the start of the season. The Spaniard has not been carving defences open in 2012 like he was at the start of the season. Regardless of that, he’s still getting the job done. Samir Nasri has not performed the goods in his debut season in Manchester, despite game after game under Mancini. He has 3 Premier League goals this season, down on his 10 scored for Arsenal last season and his 6 in his 2008/09 debut season with the Gunners.
Yaya Toure will be fresh following his absence from the trip to Lisbon through suspension. The Ivorian has been one of the best players in the league this season, and on his day is quite a frame to stop.
Up front, Edin Dzeko has been a real liability since starting the season in fine form. The Bosnian has scored a couple in recent weeks; in 3-0 victories over Fulham and Blackburn, and whilst he does have an impressive 13 goals to his name, he does appear to be holding the team back on occasions. Notably when City aren’t playing well.
More game time for Mario Balotelli could solve any problems Manchester City have up front. But the big news this month is the return of Carlos Tevez, due to be playing with the first team in the coming weeks. Wouldn’t it be a story if he scored the Premier League winning goal?
It’s hard to put your finger on any specific game and say “Manchester City will drop points here”. But with trips to Swansea, Stoke and Arsenal in the next few weeks and a home game with Chelsea in between, Manchester United could well be top of the Premier League ahead of the Manchester derby.
Title number 20 for the Red Devils? I guess we will have to wait and see…