David Moyes will know that winning the midfield battle against Manchester City is a long shot.
Following the win against Olympiakos last week, there were suggestions that we had finally seen the classic Manchester United, the one that had been replaced by a far inferior imposter for much of this season. The 3-0 win against Greece’s recently crowned champions was a morale-lifting result, but it was quite a distance from what we’ve seen from United over the years.
There were scares. A better team would have put United away over both legs of the tie. Simply put, Moyes doesn’t have an individual or unit in the midfield to stem the tide towards David De Gea’s goal.
Another win at West Ham on Saturday evening would have done wonders for Moyes on a personal level, and also fuelled his side for a derby tonight that is very much about the restoration of pride at Old Trafford. And yet Moyes would certainly have been worried by what he saw from Manuel Pellegrini’s side earlier that day. A 5-0 win against Fulham and a hat-trick for Yaya Toure.
It’s not just this season that we’ve been easily able to dissect the gulf in class between United and City’s midfields. Moving away from City’s disappointments in the Champions League over the past two seasons, Yaya Toure has proven to be something United have not so much needed but craved as an addition to their uninspiring midfield. A carrier of the ball, but also a goliath who’s able to threaten even the most assured teams around Europe.
20 goals for Toure this season is an unbelievable figure to hit considering where he came from: Barcelona, yes, but as a holding midfielder, and one who played at centre-back in the 2009 Champions League final against Alex Ferguson’s side. Toure isn’t just scoring goals for fun, he’s hitting the back of the net in stunning fashion. Wayne Rooney may have forced some sections of the media to get carried away by his volley on the weekend against West Ham, but Toure has at least a handful of much more credible Goal of the Season efforts to his name.
Those who are sensible would have stopped short of proclaiming United had turned a corner following their two recent victories. There were positives in that Rooney and one of either Robin van Persie or Juan Mata looked a much more cohesive force without the third complicating the matter, and also that United’s number 10 was looking every bit the next club captain, as most expect him to be.
For those who are waiting for something more substantial before declaring Moyes and his team out of the woods and into the clear for good, City will represent a much bigger test, specifically in holding back a midfielder who, despite the wealth of attacking flair in Pellegrini’s side, is that team’s talismanic figure; the one who brought the first major trophy to the modern Manchester City, the one who has transformed into a mechanical-like behemoth of a midfielder, and who poses the biggest threat to United at Old Trafford.
City have match-winners all over the pitch; a statement that can’t be made for United. Alvaro Negredo is deep into a scoring drought, but the Spaniard always looks likely to find the back of the net. The resurgence of Samir Nasri is also a credit to Pellegrini’s man management. But you feel that if United are to truly turn a corner, they’ll look to add some steel to their midfield going into this derby, not just in reinforcing the wall ahead of the defence, but heading out with the mentality to stop Toure playing. It’s certainly not impossible.
Should Toure hit form, he will more than likely be the decider of this match. Unlikely to hit another hat-trick or force a high-scoring mauling of the home side; for everything that has come before, a repeat of the 4-1 result at the start of the season seems a little out there, as City are not without their own shortcomings.
But if United are to build on the good they have accomplished over the past week, they will have to continue to elevate their game to match the raised intensity of the opposition and what Pellegrini holds as his primary weapon.