State of flux may erode usual thrill of first Manchester derby of the season
First showdown of season between United and City will be essential for both to set momentum
The Manchester derby has developed into the key battle in the English Premier League and has been as exciting as it has been tense, but the old certainties seem less solid going into tomorrow's first showdown of the season.
The form and prospects of both teams under their new managers are still in a state of flux, with flashes of the old brilliance mixed with a fresh sense of vulnerability, but they will be aware of how important the first Manchester derby of the season has become. Two seasons ago City sent shock waves through English football with a 6-1 win at Old Trafford in October that sent them into an early five-point lead and ultimately to the title. Last season the tables were turned in December when City were beaten 3-2 at home by United, who then had a six-point lead and proved uncatchable.
This season's title battle is already looking more than just a two-horse race, which makes it difficult to see tomorrow's game as such a decisive contest, but it is important for both teams to gain some momentum.
City started in blistering style under Manuel Pellegrini with a 4-0 home win over Newcastle, but then came stuttering performances (especially in taking only one point from visits to Cardiff and Stoke) before the 3-0 midweek Champions League win at Viktoria Plzen.
On paper, City had one of the easier starts in the Premier League - certainly less taxing than United's - and their failure to capitalise has raised early question marks over where they are heading under Pellegrini.
What will give City fans and backers hope is their good home record. They have won 34 of their 40 home league games since the start of the 2011-12 season, including both of this season's home games under Pellegrini without conceding a goal. More significantly, City have won seven out of 10 at home to big-six sides in that period, with United inflicting the only defeat.
City are rightful favourites, but United's away record is strong, too. In 11 visits to big-six sides since the start of the 2011-12 season, United have lost only twice (with five wins and four draws). That makes the case for backing them on the handicap but, like City, their form this season is not rock solid. United have looked good in four-goal performances against Swansea and Bayer Leverkusen, but in between they failed to score in their first two big-six clashes of the season against Liverpool (1-0 away defeat) and Chelsea (goalless draw at home).
Considering they had failed to score in just two of their 24 big-six matches in the last two seasons under Alex Ferguson, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that David Moyes has a more cautious approach than his predecessor.
That could affect the goals potential in tomorrow's match. Usually it would be high, both for big-six clashes overall and City-United meetings (nine out of 14 have had over 2.5 goals in the four seasons since the big six was formed), but the three big-six clashes this season have seen two goals between them.
The key player could be Wayne Rooney. He missed the Liverpool defeat and, in the past two seasons, he has been on the losing side only once in seven away starts against the big six. That points to United as the tentative pick on the handicap.
There are no rock-solid form bets elsewhere in the Premier League, without backing one of the big six at short odds at home. Newcastle, much maligned as usual but going well, are one option at home to Hull, while Tottenham rate pretty well away to Cardiff.
Under Andre Villas-Boas, Tottenham have won 10 out of 17 away to teams that finished below them last season and the win rate has been accelerating, with seven wins and no defeats out of 10 in that category since Christmas. The question is whether Cardiff can maintain the home form they had against Manchester City and Everton.
Handicap bets to consider are Swansea at Crystal Palace and Aston Villa at Norwich. Swansea have had a tough start, but only United and Tottenham have beaten them, while Villa won twice at manager Paul Lambert's old club last season and can do so again.
Starting with the 4-1 win at Norwich in the League Cup nine months ago, Villa's last 16 away games have had over 2.5 goals, so another high-scoring game looks a good bet.
Tottenham, QPR, Oldham, Preston, Rotherham, Wolfsburg, Hertha Berlin, Inter Milan
10pm unless otherwise stated: Chelsea v Fulham (12.30am Sun), Liverpool v Southampton, Newcastle United v Hull City, Norwich City v Aston Villa (7.45pm), West Bromwich Albion v Sunderland, West Ham United v Everton
11pm unless otherwise stated: Arsenal v Stoke City (8.30pm), Cardiff City v Tottenham Hotspur, Crystal Palace v Swansea City (8.30pm), Manchester City v Manchester United
1 QPR away win Strong chance for promotion favourites
2 Oldham home win Can do better now their fixtures are easier
3 Rotherham on handicap Unbeaten side rate a solid chance
4 Hertha Berlin on handicap Can get back to their good early form
5 Inter away win Bet of the weekend against bottom club Sassuolo