With City falling out of 2nd place, momentarily at least, it seems that the worst possible circumstance has arrived. City had 2nd place virtually locked for a significant part of the season, but with road woes and other issues at the club, City is now in 4th place. Thankfully, Liverpool are 7 points away in 5th and United and Arsenal are only, 1 and 2 points respectively, away from City at the moment. A win at Old Trafford would be key to rescuing what has become a season to forget with another Champions League exit in the Round of 16 and a sudden late-season slide, which is costing the team points, and more importantly, places in the top of the league.
Manuel Pellegrini has said during the week that "football has so many things that can happen." Yes, a derby is a derby and anything can happen. All circumstances, most probable or most doubtful in terms of results, can occur. With that in mind, City are not in form or in the correct state of mind. At the moment, City seems to have forgotten how to win. Of City's last 5 league matches, 3 have ended in defeat, all of which were on the road. From the three losses, to Burnley, Liverpool and Crystal Palace, it seems that the only difficult match on paper would be against Liverpool at Anfield. Manchester United, on the other hand, are in a run of good form. Since losing to Swansea 6 weeks ago, United have won their last 5 league matches, including a 3-0 rout of Spurs at home and a 2-1 win over Liverpool at Anfield.
With all of this in mind, here are some decisions that could shape the Manchester derby in City's favour:
Playing a lone striker: With all of the dynamics and work rate that he puts in for City, the best thing Pellegrini could do is play a Agüero as lone striker up front. It may seem that it would take away from City's attack, but this would be a great benefit. Agüero is player that seems to play well when he is left to work up top. Pellegrini should concentrate the game on the wings, and put Agüero's support out wide, because Manchester United's outside players, Valencia and Young, are quite attacking minded. With that in mind, it seems that if City players, like Navas and Silva, utilize open space left by either Young or Valencia, this could open the door for beginning attacks for Agüero up front. Agüero has gotten the better of Smalling and Jones in the past, so instead of playing a pair of strikers up front, Pellegrini should play a lone striker and concentrate players on the wings, perhaps in a 4-2-3-1, where the two wide-men are running at Young and Valencia, and then having David Silva in support as the central attacking midfielder.
Fernando over Fernandinho?: A key element of United's sudden emergence is Spanish midfielder Ander Herrera. The thing with Herrera is that he is quite good at making runs into empty spaces. He achieves this by having attackers bunch up in front of defenders, making it easy for free up space for a pass to Herrera at the top of the box. it is this that will define the match for City's defense, if they can contain Herrera's runs. To do this, you need a defensive minded midfielder. In this scenario, knowing that Toure is a box-to-box midfielder, who does Pellegrini want to have, Reges or Fernandinho? Fernando Reges made his name at Porto for being one of Europe's top defensive midfielders. Fernandinho is also a defensive minded midfielder, but not as defensive as Reges. This is a key tactical decision that could play a role in containing not just Ander Herrera, but also United as a whole.
It is clear that if Man City wants to clear statement of intent, the Manchester derby is the perfect, and perhaps the last, opportunity to do so. If they can displace United in the own front yard on Sunday, it will prove that City perhaps have hope for the rest of the season to excel and regain second place, because the title is out of reach for City.
Prediction? The match will be a tight one, with both teams battling it out in the middle of the park to win possession. For United, it will be Herrera and Mata and for City, it will be Touré and Fernando/Fernandinho. In the end, City will not be able to shut down United with the dynamic play by Mata and Herrera, coupled with the exploits of Wayne Rooney.