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City are in the driving seat for Manchester clash

Mancini's men look to be the side to back again after beating United twice in league last season

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 December, 2012, 1:54am

No match in early December can be a title decider, but the outcome of tomorrow's Manchester derby is likely to be hugely significant nonetheless.

City will go top with a win, but victory for United would put them six points clear of the reigning champions and give them a huge boost going into the Christmas programme.

City won both derbies in the Premier League last season and those victories made all the difference in the end.

The six-point swing in City's favour enabled them to finish level on points with United, having recovered a seemingly lost cause to go back to the top with a 1-0 home win over their neighbours in the third-last match of the season.

In the first meeting, at Old Trafford in October, City had won 6-1 to give them most of the eight-goal advantage that proved decisive in the end.

It is a further indication of how close the title race was that, if the result at Old Trafford had been a 2-1 win for City, the two Manchester teams would have finished level on points, goal difference and goals scored.

In that scenario, under Premier League rules, the title would have been decided by a play-off on a neutral ground - what a spectacle that would have been.

To return from the hypothetical to the here and now, City look the team to back again. They have not been in the spectacular form of last autumn, but they remain the most solid side in the Premier League. They have conceded only 11 goals in their first 15 games and, while United are more free-scoring, the general rule of thumb in matches of this type is to back the better defensive side rather than the more attacking team.

United have serious defensive deficiencies without Nemanja Vidic, as Alex Ferguson admitted this week, and City have the height to cause even more problems than Reading did last weekend.

Roberto Mancini's side have plenty of skill as well and an exceptional home record of 36 wins from 44 games in the Premier League since their last defeat at the Etihad.

Mancini is as worried about his low-scoring attack as Ferguson is about his "Cartoon Cavalcade" defence, with the City boss admitting the lack of goals was "a big problem" after the 1-0 Champions League defeat at Borussia Dortmund.

But at the odds, City have to be backed.

Many punters will be steering clear of Chelsea, but some of the gloom was lifted by their 6-1 Champions League win and they rate a good chance at the odds to break a seven-match winless run in the league with victory at Sunderland.

Current form tables and negative headlines never tell the full story and, taking a longer-term view, there is no doubt Chelsea are a much better team than Sunderland and more than good enough to win at the Stadium of Light.

The seven winless games have all been against teams higher in the table than 17th-placed Sunderland and Chelsea have won two out of three this season against current bottom-six teams. Their odds should be much shorter on overall form. Sunderland, by contrast, have lost all three matches against teams in the top six and their slump has been much deeper and more prolonged than Chelsea's malaise.

The decline started after their FA Cup quarter-final exit last season and, having played to top-six standard under Martin O'Neill up to that point, they have been unable to recover any semblance of that form.

West Ham rate a reasonable bet at home to Liverpool, who are 11th and have yet to beat any team above them in the table.

Luis Suarez, who has scored 10 of Liverpool's 19 league goals and set up two more, is suspended. Six other Liverpool players have scored in the league, but only one goal each and just one was on the road.

Without a senior striker, Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers is likely to adopt a keep-ball strategy that could lead to under 2.5 goals. West Ham could edge a tight game, or at least avoid defeat, and that makes them the handicap pick.

Aston Villa v Stoke looks another low-scoring game, while Southampton and Reading - both in the top five for average goals per game - could go over 2.5 goals. Tottenham are quietly building good form and are the handicap pick at Everton and West Brom can't be ignored at big odds against Arsenal.



1 Chelsea away win Good chance for Rafa Benitez’s first league win

2 Brighton on handicap Only one defeat in 13 against teams below them

3 Millwall on handicap Unbeaten in 13 games and hosts Ipswich are weak

4 Nottingham Forest home win Worth the risk against low-scoring Burnley

5 Bilbao home win Poor travellers Celta Vigo have to be opposed



Chelsea, Brighton, Millwall, Nottingham Forest, Notts County, Bilbao.



TODAY (11pm unless stated): Arsenal v West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa v Stoke City, Southampton v Reading, Sunderland v Chelsea, Swansea City v Norwich City, Wigan Athletic v Queens Park Rangers.

TOMORROW Manchester City v Manchester United (9:30pm), Everton v Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United v Liverpool (12am Mon).

MONDAY Fulham v Newcastle United (4am, Tues).