Draw would be no surprise in Manchester derby
While the title is virtually United's, their leaky defence does give other teams a chance
This weekend's English Premier League programme builds to a crescendo on Monday for the Manchester derby, although what should have been a firecracker may turn out to be little more than a damp squib.
The weekend starts with a couple of relegation clashes today - Reading v Southampton and Stoke v Aston Villa - and continues with another tomorrow when QPR host Wigan. Attention is also focused on the race for European places when Tottenham host Everton before Monday's top-two clash between the Manchester clubs.
United's 15-point lead with eight games to play means the title is virtually theirs already and City have more to play for in terms of fending off any challenge for second place and regaining the psychological edge over their biggest rivals.
Before their last meeting, on December 9, only three points separated United and City. United's 3-2 win at the Etihad opened up the first significant gap in the title race and they have pressed home their advantage ever since by taking 38 points out of a possible 42.
City haven't done badly in the period between the two games with United - nine wins, two draws and three defeats for a total of 29 points out of a possible 42 - but their title challenge has gradually wilted under the pressure.
Following the United game, City had a run of five matches against teams from the current bottom eight and they won four out of five (the exception was a 1-0 defeat at Sunderland). Against teams in the top 12, however, their recent record is won three, drawn one and lost two, with the two defeats coming in their most recent away games in that category.
That suggests City have lost the cutting edge in big matches that brought them victory in both league clashes with United last season, including an earth-shattering 6-1 win at Old Trafford. Last season City averaged 2.2 points per game in big-six clashes compared with United's 2.0, but this season United have upped their game to 2.29 points per game in that category while City have dropped back to 1.62.
City have lost only one out of eight in that category, however, and their problem has been a high draw rate (four out of eight). On this season's evidence, it is questionable whether City can outscore United but a draw would not be a surprise because United's far from watertight defence gives teams a chance.
United have conceded in all seven big-six clashes so far and have relied on superior firepower to get them out of trouble - the only time that really backfired was the 3-2 home defeat by Tottenham in September. City have scored in all but one of their big-six games, which points to an entertaining game on Monday.
Over 2.5 goals looks the most solid bet, with United the pick in the match betting simply because of their excellent home record (14 wins out of 14 apart from the Tottenham defeat) and their greater reliability in showdowns with elite teams.
Tottenham v Everton is difficult to weigh up, with confidence in the hosts tempered by their set-up as a counter-attacking away side. Tottenham have won less than half of their home games against top-half teams (three wins out of seven) and Everton usually raise their game against better opposition.
Everton have lost only two out of seven against top-six teams, whereas Tottenham have lost four out of seven in that category. At the odds Everton are a tentative pick on the handicap.
In the big relegation matches Southampton look the best bet at Reading. High-profile home wins have given Southampton momentum under Mauricio Pochettino, but some of their away performances have been better than the results suggest and this is their best chance yet under their new coach. Reading have lost their last six in the league and haven't kept a clean sheet in 11.
Stoke are out of form (eight defeats out of 11 in the league in 2013) and Villa rate the handicap bet at the Britannia stadium. The visitors have the best record in matches between the bottom eight, with no defeat in four on the road in that category.
The likelihood of high scores in QPR's remaining games was proved right last week when they lost 3-2 at Fulham and over 2.5 goals looks a good call again in their home game with Wigan, who have the highest percentage of games with over 2.5 goals in the Premier League this season.
Southampton, Brighton, Hull, Nottingham Forest, Atletico Madrid, Hannover, Schalke.
1 Southampton away win Improvers have a good chance at fast-sinking Reading
2 Brighton on handicap Have lost only three out of 20 at home
3 Nottingham Forest home win Only dropped points at home under Billy Davies have been against top-eight sides
4 Hannover home win Have won all six at home against teams below them
5 Schalke on handicap Solid chance against out-of-form hosts Werder Bremen
TONIGHT (10pm unless stated)
Reading v Southampton 7:45pm, Stoke City v Aston Villa, Norwich City v Swansea City, West Brom v Arsenal
Liverpool v West Ham 8:30pm, Spurs v Everton 9:05pm, Chelsea v Sunderland 10pm, Newcastle v Fulham 10pm, QPR v Wigan 11:10 pm