Before their defeat by Leeds United on Sunday, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men might have had one eye on their weekend visit to in-form Birmingham City, but after being dumped out of the FA Cup, the Red Devils will travel across Manchester looking to set the record straight. City’s strong start to life under Mancini will be pushed to the limit by their local rivals, and the Italian needs his defence to continue their run of clean sheets for at least one more game. Ferguson has vowed to make changes after the disappointment of the weekend but Wayne Rooney is likely to keep his place, meaning Joleon Lescott and Vincent Kompany, City’s probable centre-back partnership, cannot afford an off day.
Stoke City, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Middlesbrough are the teams who have tried and failed to get past City’s defence since Mancini took over, and when compared to the last three games under Mark Hughes, the bare numbers are impressive. Hughes’ City conceded nine goals in three games before the Welshman received his marching orders, against Bolton Wanderers, Tottenham Hotspur and Sunderland. Mancio has had an easier run, but under their previous manager the quality of the opposition seemed to matter little as goals were shipped regardless of the forward line City were faced with. The Blues conceded three goals against the attacking might of Burnley, the side with the worst away record in the league, and few would argue Stoke City offer a much greater threat than the Clarets, but City stood firm.
On the surface, the absence of Joleon Lescott is the only difference between Hughes’ regular back-four and the defensive line Mancini has selected. Lescott, missing through a knee injury, was aggressively pursued by Hughes over the summer and eventually brought to Eastlands for a fee believed to be in the region of £22m. While the upturn in City’s defensive record during Lescott’s absence is down to the tactics and coaching of Mancini more than the removal of the England international, Lescott’s poor form was a major contribution to City’s early-season ills. With Kolo Toure also out of sorts after his big-money move, Lescott’s dismal showings were exemplified. Lescott has always needed a commanding presence next to him at centre-back, having produced his best form at Goodison Park when Phil Jagielka was marshalling the last line. If Kompany keeps his centre-back berth, Lescott may struggle to regain his place in the side, and should the Belgian be the calming influence City’s defence requires, Lescott’s World Cup place will be under threat.
City are not the only Manchester side to have defensive failings this season. United’s problems have primarily been brought on by injuries as one of the best back-lines in the Premier League has been decimated. But shoddy performances have added to Ferguson’s woes and the pace of Craig Bellamy is the perfect weapon to exploit the uncertainty that clouds the men from Old Trafford. Bellamy, a growing favourite on the terraces at Eastlands, has been City’s most devastating forward this season but has recently been rivalled by Carlos Tevez as Mancini’s greatest goal scoring threat. The presence of both diminutive forwards against a rocky defensive unit could be the decisive factor in taking City to their first cup final in a generation.
Tevez has often been criticised for a lack of goals to complement his excellent all-round play, but a return of four goals in his last four games has put paid to that allegation. One of the hardest-working forwards to grace English football in recent years, Tevez just needed to find the back of the net with more regularity to justify his exorbitant price tag and is beginning to do just that. After just nine goals in his 63 United appearances, the Argentine has already netted nine in 18 for City. A tenth goal, against his former club, would help give City a vital advantage ahead of the second leg in two weeks time. After being eliminated from one cup competition already this week, Ferguson will be even more loathe than usual to lose this Manchester derby, but for City, adding to the Scot’s misery could be the perfect motivation to keep that all-important clean sheet.