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Man versus Man should be dogfight

Premiership leaders City, United contest first derby Sunday

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The first of the season's Manchester derbies will be played on Sunday at Eastlands (7:30 a.m., Sportsnet World), but you get the feeling the principals in the Premier League title race have squared off 15 times already this term.

With reigning champions Manchester City and record title winners Manchester United putting more and more distance between themselves and the rest of the division by the week, the chances of a true contender emerging from outside the city are becoming increasingly small. Only three points separate leaders United from second-place City in the ledger, after which there is a drop of seven points that none of Chelsea, Tottenham and West Bromwich Albion are likely to scale anytime soon.

When one of the Manchester sides is in action the other can't help but agonize over the outcome, knowing whatever happens -- be it a win, dropped points or even an injury -- will directly affect their own title prospects, their destiny.

The Manchester Derby is really a nine-month, 38-match affair that just happens to include two head-to-head encounters over the course of the schedule. And no matter which side wins on Sunday, the other will know there are still 22 occasions for momentum to change in their favour, regardless if they happen to be involved in the actual game.

Following are five talking points ahead of the most important match of the season to date:

 

5. Who's No. 1?

 

United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has yet to settle on a first-choice goalkeeper this season. Through 15 Premier League matches Anders Lindegaard has started eight times, with David De Gea beginning the other seven.

The split is likely down to the fact that neither has played well enough to establish himself as Ferguson's No. 1, through more than a third of the schedule. Lindegaard, 28, has conceded 11 goals and kept two clean sheets in the matches he's played while De Gea, 22, has allowed 10 goals and recorded one clean sheet.

 

4. The first goal

Incredibly, United has conceded the first goal in 10 of the 15 Premier League matches they've played. But what's even more unbelievable is that they've managed to come back and take 21 points from matches in which they've trailed.

It's a risky pattern, and City are unlikely to be as generous when United begin the inevitable fight-back as, say, Aston Villa. City, by comparison, have conceded the opening goal only six times this season.

3. Mental state

City crashed out of the Champions League at the group stage for a second year in a row on Tuesday and failed to win any of their six matches in Europe's premier club competition.

For all their recent domestic success their struggles in continental play are troubling, or, as Ferguson said this week, "unhealthy." To which City boss Roberto Mancini replied by reminding Ferguson that it had taken him only two years of management to win the title while the Scot had required seven years.

There are two schools of thought regarding City's premature Champions League exit. One: a more relaxed schedule will give them the upper hand in the title race. Two: Mancini may struggle to keep his high-profile players happy, and the discouragement of their European embarrassment may manifest itself in poor Premier League performances over the coming weeks.

 

2. Mind games

Ferguson loves winding up his opposite number in the days before a big match, and this week was no exception.

Not only did the United supremo have a little fun at the expense of City's Champions League exit, but he also called into question the number of penalties City have been awarded of late (something that Sunday's referee Martin Atkinson will no doubt have heard loud and clear) and had his scouts track down two of City's high-prized transfer targets.

Mancini, meanwhile, played a few games of his own regarding playmaker David Silva's fitness. After initially being doubtful to feature in Sunday's match the Spain international is now likely to be named among City's starting 11.

 

1. Midfield

Neither side has been particularly dominant in the centre of the park this season. City were repeatedly carved apart by better-drilled, technically superior midfield opponents in the Champions League while United's abysmal defensive record has quite a bit to do with a midfield that not only concedes possession far too regularly, but lacks movement and imagination.

Gareth Barry and Yaya Toure will likely start in central roles for City on Sunday while Michael Carrick will be partnered by one of Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher. Hardly the sort of names that would inspire fear among Europe's truly elite.

In other words, expect goals and plenty of them.

jerradpeters@gmail.com Twitter @peterssoccer

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 8, 2012 C8

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