Judgment day as Old Trafford awaits ambitious City
October 23 has been circled in red on the calendar ever since the English Premier League fixture list was unveiled and now it is almost upon us. It is the day of reckoning for Manchester City's title aspirations as they visit neighbours United.
The two Manchester clubs have set a fast pace from the start of the season and they arrive with City top on 22 points and United second on 20. One interesting point is that City had more in hand on their biggest rivals at the same stage last season, when Roberto Mancini's team had 17 points and were in second place behind Chelsea while United were fourth on 14 points.
That goes to show that positions at this stage of the season are not too important, although there is no denying that both United and City have made more impressive starts to this campaign. Both are unbeaten and have exceptional goal differences, being plus 21 for City and plus 19 for United.
This is a big test for City, who must do better in the mini-league of the big six clubs if they are to win the title. Last season City finished bottom of that group and the five-point gap to leaders United was more than half the margin between the two teams in the overall table.
The problem for City was their poor away form. They failed to score in four of their five games on the road against big-six teams and took only two points (both goalless draws) out of a possible 15. Without improvement in that category, a title triumph is unlikely.
The early signs this season have been promising. City started with a 5-1 win at Tottenham and overall their away form is much improved, with 10 points out of a possible 12 and 14 goals scored in four away games.
There is, however, a lingering suspicion that they caught Tottenham cold after the hosts had been beaten 3-0 at United and had their first home game postponed. That means the acid test of City's away form will be how they perform tomorrow at Old Trafford.
City have had stirring battles with United recently, although ultimately United have had the better of the results. A case in point was this season's Community Shield, when City led 2-0 at half-time but wilted as United roared back to win 3-2.
In 10 meetings between the neighbours since Sheikh Mansour pumped his money into City, United have won seven and lost just two. The four meetings at Old Trafford have all been won by United, although City have run them close on a couple of occasions.
One of the big questions surrounding City is whether they will persist with the more adventurous play of this season or revert to more cautious tactics. Before this season, Mancini had always seemed more concerned with the opposition's attack than his own. In general his safety-first policy was a failure against the big six, with the exception of the 1-0 win he secured over United's in last season's FA Cup semi-final.
Mancini's inclination may well be to use similar tactics again, in the hope of another narrow win. There is encouragement in the fact that the only two defeats United have suffered at Old Trafford in the past two seasons were both 1-0.
But there has been success for teams prepared to attack in United's fortress. Only last month Basle drew 3-3 there in the Champions League and last season West Brom were the only Premier League team to take anything at Old Trafford when they forced a 2-2 draw.
Either way, wins or even draws for visitors to Old Trafford are few and far between. United have won 38 of their 42 home matches in the Premier League since the start of the 2009-10 season, including 12 of 13 against the big six, and have scored in all but one of those 42 games.
United have a remarkable scoring record at home to the big six, having only two shut-outs (both by Arsenal) in the past six seasons.
That means it will be some achievement by City to keep a clean sheet and the better option might be to show some real attacking intent as United are far from secure at the back, with only four clean sheets in 13 games in the Premier League and Champions League this season.
United won't face a tougher home game this season after City's visit, but nor will backers have a better chance to get on them at decent odds. Their home record makes them worth chancing, especially as there is no guarantee that City will be more effective this season away to the big six.
United's impressive scoring record means that, along with a home win, the other bet to have is over 2.5 goals. Since the start of the 2009-10 season, 11 of United's 13 home games against big-six sides have had over 2.5 goals and overall in that period they have had 69 per cent over 2.5 goals at home.
The rest of the Premier League programme is uninspiring, but it might be worth backing Arsenal to beat the handicap against Stoke. Arsenal have won three out of four against teams outside the top six, while Stoke do not appear to have improved much on the road.
wins out of five for Chelsea against bottom-half teams
Manchester United, Southampton, Wolfsburg, Valencia, Real Betis, Cagliari.
TOP 5 BETS
1 Manchester United home win
Excellent home record against the big six
2 Southampton on handicap
Only two defeats in the opening 12 games
3 Wolfsburg on handicap
Look a match for all but the elite teams
4 Valencia home win
Have won their last five against Bilbao
5 Cagliari on handicap
Odds underestimate their good start