Wayne Rooney with a strike from the heavens. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Rivals Manchester United and Manchester City will descend on Wembley on Saturday to clash with each other in a FA Cup semi-final derby. The two sides have met twice this season in Barclays Premier League play; the first match at Eastlands in November resulted in a dull 0-0 draw and the return fixture at Old Trafford was won by United 2-1 in dramatic fashion after Wayne Rooney's overhead volley won the match. As the iconic clock banner in the Stretford End reminds all, it's been 35 years since City have won a major trophy. The winner of this semi-final tie will play either Bolton Wanderers or Stoke City in the final; both of whom the winner of this match will be a decided favorite over to lift the FA Cup come 14 May.
Manchester United: United come into the tie having won their past seven matches in all competitions, including the elimination of Chelsea FC this past Tuesday night in the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals. The Red Devils also are seven points clear of their nearest title-contending rival Arsenal FC in the Premier League, although the North London side have a match in hand. During this run-in, United are battling on three fronts while in chase of the audacious ambition of achieving a treble, a feat the club famously achieved in 1999.
Injuries have been a significant concern for the club in recent months but many key squad members have recently been returning. This has proved to be vital as United currently are facing important matches every three or four days. However, there are still some players that may not be available for the clash at Wembley. Owen Hargreaves and Anders Lindegaard continue to be unavailable due to long-term injuries. Rooney and Jonny Evans are unavailable due to domestic suspensions. Darren Fletcher has been battling a virus that has caused him to miss the past five weeks of action. The Scot has returned to training and is attempting to regain fitness after the virus caused the midfielder to lose weight. Rafael was unavailable against Chelsea due to a knee injury and his status is uncertain for Saturday.
Manchester City: City recently were eliminated from the Europa League and their ambitions lie in qualifying for Champions League action next season and lifting the FA Cup this season. The Blues currently sit 4th in the Premier League table, the final qualifying spot for Europe's grandest competition, with a three point cushion on Tottenham Hotspur. However, the recently eliminated Champions League quarter-finalists have a match in hand.
City manager Roberto Mancini has one major injury concern; that of talisman Carlos Tevez. Despite Mancini deciding to rest a number of key figures during City's 0-3 defeat by Liverpool FC this past Monday, he played his Argentinean striker and paid the price for the gamble. Tevez limped off in the 1st half at Anfield for what was described as a torn hamstring, thus, the former United player will not be available to face his old club. Right-back Jerome Boateng is out due to a knee injury. Backup goalkeeper Shay Given is out with a shoulder injury. Right-back Micah Richards has returned to training this week and Mancini says the defender is available, although his fitness may be a concern.
Tactical highlights from February's match-up between United & City:
* In both league matches this season, the two sides faced off in a '4-3-3' vs '4-3-3' shape battle. As mentioned previously, the first match between the two sides was rubbish and there was very few goal-scoring chances. In the second match, both sides played in '4-3-3' for the majority of the match before both sides switched to a '4-4-2' type of shape to finish the game. (Here is a full review of the second match)
* United's basic strategy was to spread the ball to the flanks and let their wide players be the creative force in attack. Paul Scholes was terrific on the afternoon spraying long diagonal balls to Ryan Giggs and Nani in the wide areas of the pitch. These direct and incisive passes put his wingers into space and also put City under constant duress. The chalkboard is courtesy of the Guardian:
* In contrast to Scholes, City's central midfield trio of Yaya Toure, Gareth Barry, and James Milner were much shorter with their passing. Although accurate and patient, none of the trio provided the incisive pass to unlock the United defense.
* The most positive point of attack for City was between Tevez and David Silva. The duo were interchangeable and fluid in their movements. Silva, from his initial position out on the flank, would continually drift into the center of the pitch and the Spaniard almost acted as a trequartista there. The other positive for City was when Shaun Wright-Phillips came on as a substitute in the 2nd half and the winger provided a direct approach in attack. This factored prominently in their only goal.
* Nani simply terrorized City on the right flank. Neither Milner nor Barry played as strict holding-midfielders in the match, a role that Nigel De Jong would have played had he been available. Because of this, Nani was often left one-on-one, a hopeless scenario for almost any full-back. Barry was too high up the pitch and therefore unable to provide inside cover for his full-back Pablo Zabaleta.
United will likely play in a '4-4-2' or '4-3-3/4-5-1' hybrid shape. Although it is very possible that manager Sir Alex Ferguson pairs the in-form Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez with Dimitar Berbatov up front in a '4-4-2,' my instinct tells me that we'll see a '4-3-3/4-5-1' type of formation. If Edwin van der Sar's groin is not a concern, then the Dutchman likely gets the nod in between the posts at Wembley. If his groin is a lingering issue or if United want their 40-year-old to be rested, Tomasz Kuszczak will deputize. Captain Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra are nearly guaranteed to be selected in defense. Rio Ferdinand may be rested and his able deputy Chris Smalling may get the start. Expect to see either John O'Shea or Rafael at right-back. If a three-man central midfield is used, Scholes, Michael Carrick and Anderson are a possible trio. Darron Gibson, Giggs, or Park are options here as well, although the 37-year-old Giggs may be rested after his Champions League battle on Tuesday night. The wide options include Nani, Antonio Valencia, Park, and Giggs. Just as Giggs did, Park went the full 90 versus Chelsea and could be rested. Berbatov lead the attacking line brilliantly last weekend versus Fulham in a '4-3-3' and he may be asked to do it again versus City.
Mancini is almost certain to select Joe Hart in goal with his center-back tandem being Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott. If Richards isn't fit enough to start, expect to see Dedryck Boyata at right-back. Aleksandar Kolarov is the likely choice at left-back. I anticipate City to play with three central midfielders, whether that be in a '4-3-3' or '4-2-3-1.' The hard-tackling De Jong will likely be playing as the holding-midfielder with Barry and Toure higher up the pitch. Milner is a possibility as well, despite showing clear disgust to his manager after being substituted off at Anfield on Monday. Milner could also be asked to play a wide role, but Adam Johnson and Silva seem like the more likely possibilities there. Mario Balotelli is the expected striker, but Edin Dzeko could be featured as well.
Be sure to check back with us as this projection will continually be updated as news comes in regarding injury and personnel issues. Here's the current projection:
Tactical keys to the match:
* United's right winger vs Koralov: I anticipate that Valencia plays here but if Nani does, the same ideas will apply. Koralov is a threat to get forward with his pace and ability to link play. However, his defending can be suspect. Valenica is very good at pinning back attacking full-backs and that's exactly what the Ecuadorian winger needs to do on Saturday. Both Valencia and Nani are elite attackers on the right flank so if Kolarov gets careless with his runs forward, his side will be exposed.
* Central midfield: If it's 3 v 3 here, the match could get dull. I expect both sides to be patient with their passing but the tempo of the match could pick up if Scholes is spraying long diagonal balls into space on the flanks. Scholes has been sensational in both matches versus City this season because he's had time and space on the ball in between lines. The Blues haven't deployed a midfielder high enough up the pitch to constantly occupy the deep-lying Scholes. In contrast, City simply don't have that sort of playmaker in their central midfield. Barry is an excellent possession passer but he often lacks the ability to unlock a defense higher up the pitch with a killer pass. Toure is capable of making individual runs through the defense with his combination of technique and physical strength but he too hasn't shown to be an ideal attacking midfielder.
* Silva's movement: At times this season, United's defense have struggled to deal with sides that have good movement in the attacking third. Whichever side that Silva is deployed on, he'll likely have the freedom to glide around in search of space and time on the ball. This is worrisome for United because he is a fantastic dribbler, has good vision, and he has the range of passing to break down the United defense. When the Spaniard drifts to center, he may be the one that can make up for his teammate's lack of creativity in the attacking third of the pitch. It will be vital for United's defenders to track his movements and zonally defend him; this requires clear communication and organization.
* Odds: City 11/5, Draw 9/4, United 6/5
* Prediction: City 1-2 United
* SB Nation's City site: Bitter and Blue