x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Top of the class or left on the floor for Manchester City and United

Sir Alex Ferguson toyed with mind games, but it was Roberto Mancini who finds himself with a chance to pull one over the 'teacher'.

Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson, left, and his counterpart at Manchester City, Roberto Mancini, have had nothing but platitudes for each other in the run-up to the Manchester derby.
Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson, left, and his counterpart at Manchester City, Roberto Mancini, have had nothing but platitudes for each other in the run-up to the Manchester derby.

No bickering neighbours, just an exchange of compliments across their Carrington training ground boundaries.

Sir Alex Ferguson, the venerated "teacher", praising Roberto Mancini for dealing out detention to that troublesome Carlos Tevez.

Yet the pre-derby day appreciation society can only stretch so far.

With Manchester City unbeaten at the summit of the Premier League, this afternoon's meeting is too significant for that. A City victory would extend their early season advantage to five points, terminate Manchester United's long unbeaten sequence at Old Trafford, and set a psychological tone for the campaign.

So the little barbs emerge in Ferguson's conversation.

Would Mancini attempt to take United on with all of his multi-million pound attacking options, or revert to a more circumspect approach?

Ferguson feigns uncertainty.

"I find it difficult to put my finger on it to be honest," says Ferguson. "We have looked at one or two options, we have watched all the videos. We have had them watched the last few games, but there is no indication of what he [Mancini] is certain to do."

Delete an overconfident second half and Martin Jol's tactical nous at Craven Cottage and City's opening eight games would be perfect from a points perspective; their cushion to United already plumped up greater than the two points before Sunday's match.

Remember who City have played, though, cautions Ferguson.

Their comprehensive win at White Hart Lane in August was because "at that time, Tottenham were quite weak", says United's manager. "Going to Tottenham now would be a totally different proposition altogether."

Look beyond that relatively gentle introduction to the league campaign and City's season is also not quite as impressive as it first appears.

The Community Shield was ceded to United despite being two goals to the good at half time. Napoli came close to turning their Champions League debut into an embarrassing home defeat, and Bayern Munich comprehensively outplayed City as Mancini warred on the touchline with Tevez a fortnight later.

Grander opponents have equalled significant problems, which makes Mancini's approach to Old Trafford instructive.

Unusually for the Italian, there is no need to play percentages to preserve his own status at the club.

In his first season-and-a-half at City, he prioritised defence and offered dangerous succour to Tevez by handing him the captain's armband as a means of securing the Champions League qualification and FA Cup his own future depended upon.

Now, the Italian says himself that he has never felt stronger at Etihad Stadium, while City insist they will back him to the hilt over Tevez's refusal to follow orders in Munich.

The past week has seen Mancini happily embroidering his part in lifting City, Inter Milan and Lazio off "the floor" to win titles and warning his regularly unruly team that City still do not "have the players we want".

Those were certainly some highly marbled floors City, Inter and Lazio were lounging on; and some extremely expensive footballers Mancini remains dissatisfied with.

So will such bullish words be matched by tactics this afternoon? The failures of others - most recently Arsenal and Chelsea - when daring to go toe-to-toe with United at home, advise otherwise. Yes, you can score goals against Ferguson's constantly shifting defensive line, but you will concede even more in the process.

The instincts of Mancini suggest the same. Neither Andre Villas-Boas nor Arsene Wenger travelled to Old Trafford with the quality and depth of personnel afforded City's manager, yet their tendency is to push on to the front foot. Mancini is a hold-what-he-has Italian and, with the points advantage in hand, he can be expected to tighten up that grip.

An at-times immaculately fluid 4-2-3-1 has been City's default formation this season, but last week's first Champions League victory, against Villarreal, came when Mancini added to his two holding midfielders.

"What's important is if we play with three strikers then they have to work for the team defensively," says Mancini when asked how he will line up at United.

"If you play with more offensive players then it's like against Villarreal in the first 25 minutes: every time you attack, if three or four players don't come back, then we have difficulties. The balance is important.

"It's not easy for me because we have Mario [Balotelli], [Sergio] Aguero, [David] Silva, [Samir] Nasri, James Milner and [Edin] Dzeko."

Others would love to be floored by such a problem.