With an aura of anxiety and anticipation, the Barclays Premier League fixtures were announced on 19th June and thousands of eyes scanned the list for consistently the most talked about fixture of the season; the Manchester Derby. Adding to the usual feverish excitement was the freshly embedded element of unpredictability. A new season with two new managers and a flock of fresh imports plunged into the heightened atmosphere of derby day, there is no telling how explosive, or tame, the outcome may prove to be.
Unpredictability is the ultimate turn-on for hardcore footballing fans. It’s the reason why disheartened Liverpool fans returned to their televisions for the second 45 minutes of an excruciatingly tense and exciting final that fateful in Istanbul. It’s the reason why Jose Mourinho chose to rekindle his love affair with English football. Mourinho said he was lured back to Chelsea as he could not resist the “salt and pepper” and the “unpredictability” of football. It’s written in black and white; unpredictability is key to popularity of the beautiful game.
It’s a theme that pervades the Manchester Derby year after year. Arguably, no other fixture in the Premier League can challenge in terms of capriciousness. No soul nor prophet foresaw Manchester City’s rampant obliteration of Manchester United in 2011. On top of that, the Theatre of Dreams was completely taken aback when Michael Owen, the forgotten man in English football, sprung off the bench and latched onto a Ryan Giggs through ball in ‘added time after injury time’ to clinch a dramatic 4-3 win and prompt Mark Hughes to launch a Basil Fawlty-esque tantrum against the fourth official. Samir Nasri was the unwilling victim last year of unpredictable fate, turning away from a Robin Van Persie free-kick only to lazily lift his leg in a feeble attempt to stop the shot and watch as the ball curl past Joe Hart and sink Manchester City’s title aspirations. Being as it was, a frenzied finish which nobody forecast, it led Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini to publicly criticise Samir Nasri after the match and left the French attacker out-of-favour for the majority of last season.
Despite the season only being a month old, this early meeting of two main contenders for the title feels to have that added importance. David Moyes referred to everything this season being a “first” when speaking to Gabriel Clarke after his side’s 4-2 victory in their opening Champions League group fixture on Tuesday. He is correct. There are a lot of firsts for him this season. ‘First’ is a word he is currently training to phase out of every sentence he hears. An eternal pragmatist, Moyes will simply treat Sunday’s showdown with the neighbours as a required three points. Nothing more and nothing less. He is focused and determined and knows that getting a result against City would represent a satisfactory opening month to his tenure. Swansea, Chelsea, Liverpool, Crystal Palace and Manchester City accompanied by a tough opening European fixture against strong German opponents only spelt a baptism of fire for Moyes in his new job. Getting through his “first” Manchester Derby unscathed and unbeaten is crucial to maintaining early season momentum and score that all-important victory over the naysayers who believe Moyes’ time as United boss is doomed.
Manuel Pellegrini cuts an interesting figure during press conferences and when he is operating the team through his technical area. He is hard-working, sometimes passive but it is clear that he boasts a tremendously expansive knowledge of football. The Qatari executives brought the 60 year-old Chilean in to accelerate the Blue half of Manchester’s bid for European dominance. A mere quarter of billion was invested in building a team worthy of that but Mancini failed to steer the ship steadily enough as they crashed out of the group stage, overpowered and outplayed by the giants of Madrid and Munich whilst being humbled by the prodigious talents of Napoli and Dortmund, two teams that turning heads in Europe in the way City were hoping to achieve for themselves. It appears that the objective of improving European performance is working. Victoria Plzen didn’t represent the toughest examination on the continent, but Pellegrini’s men negotiated all elements of the fixture with consummate professionalism. Buoyed by the start they craved in the Champions League, fans can now turn their attention to what their new boss has in store for his first title showdown in England. They spent wisely in the summer, in stark contrast to to their rivals, on Jesus Navas, Fernandinho, Alvaro Negredo and Stefan Jovetic. City were haunted by their inability to conduct the business they desired last summer and Mancini repeatedly pointed to United’s capture of Robin Van Persie as the reason for City’s demise. Not this summer, they got their business done early and without a hitch. This facilitated the blending of the new arrivals into the team dynamic and helped them adapt and understand the demanding rigours of English football. Now into the fifth week of competitive action, it will be interesting to see what kind of role the new imports will play. It is easy for players who are still learning to fall behind in the big games obviously but the big games also provide the biggest incentive and most appropriate platform to announce themselves on the scene.
While City may look towards their new boys to blow United away, Moyes will be banking on the experience and professionalism of his men who have done it all before. Nobody fits that bill more than Wayne Rooney. Having endured a summer of a typical ‘will-he? won’t he?’ transfer saga when it was believed the England international was trying to engineer a move to title-rivals Chelsea, United fans are glad to see him back playing well and scoring goals. The politics and money that dominate the upper-echelons of football make people forget about what the players are actually there for; to play the game they love, entertain the fans and score goals to win matches. It’s as simple as that. Happily for those that attended Tuesday’s Champions League match against Bayer Leverkusen, it looked like Rooney was delighted to fulfil all those obligations. He looked himself again, forgetting about what was being said or had been said and forming a formidable-looking attacking duo with Robin Van Persie. Even the most headstrong Manchester United fan who may have been severely disillusioned by Rooney’s apparent lack of commitment has to admit that the team clicks more and seems to operate more smoothly when he plays and plays well.
Of course, it has to be mentioned that part of the reason for Rooney’s frustration last season was being played out of position. Playing up front again on Tuesday, it looked natural and devastating. Ferguson regularly deployed him in the centre of midfield as a make-shift playmaker or shifting him out left in an even more unfavourable position. However, with the £27.5 million arrival of Marouane Fellaini from Everton, Moyes can build an effective partnership of him and Carrick in the middle. Because of this and the four more natural wide-men that United currently employ, Rooney is liberated to play up top with the Van Persie in a flat-out 4-4-2 that may re-introduce some of the exciting attacking football that critics believed was lacking in the latter years of Ferguson’s reign. It’s a fixture that always begs discussion, analysis and preview upon preview but the Manchester Derby on Sunday could prove pivotal even at this early stage in the campaign.