By Jack Gaughan
If you look hard enough, there are certain things to be gleaned from the Champions League nonentities both Manchester clubs had to endure this week. On Sunday, they will be doing battle for top spot in the Premier League when they lock horns at the Etihad Stadium.
Manchester United lost to Romanian minnows CFR Cluj 1-0 on Wednesday during a night where it was plainly obvious that Sir Alex Ferguson was there only to fulfil the fixture list. The manager actually watched from the stands, such was his lethargy.
Although beaten in the end by a wonder strike from Luis Alberto, United were lazy, lacked intensity in possession and – but for a few fleeting moments of individual excellence from Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck – never looked like scoring. So what? Already through to the knockout stages, they could afford a night of strolling around Old Trafford without several key players or a care in the world.
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It was a flat night. Despite the tannoy system stating proudly that there were 71,521 inside the ground, there was nowhere near that figure.
The supporters who had bothered to turn up knew it, and laughed at the announcement.
As for the atmosphere, barring a joyful pocket of youngsters in the south-east corner, who sang all night, the place was lifeless.
United, or the match, will not be dull at the Etihad, but seemingly, after such a strange evening, there is little room for optimism ahead of the Manchester derby in three days’ time. Sir Alex Ferguson's men might have been through a month ago, but it would have been nice to continue the momentum.
Instead, Sir Alex chose to give game time to players in need of it. And when you look at the European plight of their neighbours, United are going to be delighted going into the weekend, despite the pitfalls of decisions made.
“We set out to give the young players some game time. It only helps us,” the manager said. “Rooney has another 90 minutes now and he is getting to his real top form.”
A first half-injury to Tom Cleverley is vindication for giving some of the more senior players – Rio Ferdinand, Robin van Persie and Michael Carrick – a rest. It might have been them.
And so to City, whose exploits in this competition were even less impressive than last year’s, although the group they were handed was unfortunate. Roberto Mancini said after their 1-0 defeat at Dortmund on Tuesday that they had wanted a Europa League spot.
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That will not be a problem now, but while the manager does not seem to know whether to stick or twist with certain individuals, City are still in a state whereby the league results and standing remains on the periphery while external factors are forced upon them.
What is Mancini’s best XI? Does he know it? Why aren’t the strikers scoring enough goals? What has happened to Yaya Toure this season? Did Joe Hart start to believe the hype? Is Edin Dzeko a starter? Why is Samir Nasri given so much game time? Where is the settled back four?
These questions and more are set to a backdrop of a City side that has, by their own admission, drawn too many games, but that are still just three points behind United and are currently on a creditable unbeaten streak.
Sir Alex will be the more pleased of the two managers, but ended his press conference last night by saying: “Sunday is a very different kettle of fish altogether.”
He is not wrong. United, unlike their hapless nature against Cluj, will be at it and firing. City, if recent form is anything to go by, will stumble to a result. Those dynamics make this an incredibly intriguing encounter, and the talk leading up to it more so than ever.