It promises to be the most exciting end to a season in the English top-flight since 1989, when Arsenal beat Liverpool 2-0 at Anfield to win the title. Next Monday night, the two dominant teams in this season’s Premier League face each other with Manchester City needing a home win to draw level on points with Manchester United.
As last week saw the PFA Team of the Year named with five of the XI representing both clubs, we thought it would be interesting to put together a Best Manchester XI from this season and see if it led to any pointers for Monday’s match.
And so, in a 4-2-3-1 formation, here is the XI:
GK: Joe Hart
This was closer than you might think, as United’s David de Gea has steadily grown in stature as the campaign progressed and probably made the save of the season with his one-handed tip to keep out Juan Mata’s free-kick and preserve United’s 3-3 draw at Chelsea. But Hart, named in the PFA team, has been more consistent with the occasional moment of genius, which includes a save from an Andy Carroll header from a corner back in November’s 1-1 draw and a close-range effort from Darren Bent in February. All three saves (De Gea’s included) came in the last minute, and so won points for their team.
Right-back: Micah Richards
Some feared for Richards’ future at City when Roberto Mancini took over but he is the only player to graduate from the team’s youth ranks still at the club now Stephen Ireland, Michael Johnson and Nedum Onuoha have all left. He claims Mancini has made him a better defender but the Italian still prefers Pablo Zabaleta against certain opposition: the Argentine started the recent big games against Arsenal and Chelsea. United have had a weak spot at right-back this season: Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Antonio Valencia and Rafael da Silva have all played there. Smalling has perhaps been the most impressive but not more so than Richards.
Centre-back: Vincent Kompany
City have only lost back-to-back matches twice this season, and on both occasions their captain was missing. It was not a coincidence: the first wobble came in January when Kompany was suspended following his red card in the FA Cup loss to United. City then lost the Carling Cup semi-final first leg to Liverpool and Kompany sat out the 2-2 draw in the second leg. Injury forced him out of the Sporting Lisbon Europa League defeat which City followed up with defeat at Swansea. Kompany gives them strength, reliability and leadership at the back. He was in the PFA team and it was a big surprise he didn’t make the short-list for the season’s best six players.
Centre-back: Rio Ferdinand
Sir Alex Ferguson last week rated Jonny Evans as “arguably the best defender in the country” but the Northern Irishman has been helped by the presence of Ferdinand alongside him. Back in October, critics were suggesting this might be Ferdinand’s last season at United, as injuries limited his appearances and back pain, in his words, left him “shuffling like an old man.” He has made 26 league starts this season, his highest total for five years, and his Old Trafford career is still very much alive.
Left-back: Patrice Evra
While City have rotated the left-back slot between Gael Clichy and Alexander Kolarov, Evra has played in every league game since missing the first match of the season. It has been a tough year for him too: being the victim in the Luis Suarez racism case took its psychological toll, as his celebrations after United beat Liverpool back in February (after ‘Handshake-Gate’) showed. But his form has shown signs of returning to his 2008 and 2009 levels, before the drama of France’s World Cup fiasco affected him. Clichy is unlucky to miss out, Evra just pips him.
Defensive midfielder: Paul Scholes
Okay, so it’s a bit over-enthusiastic to name him the third-best player of the Premier League season as the Football Writers’ Association did last week, but you can’t overstate Scholes’ importance to United since his return in January. “He brings a calmness to the game and he can dictate the tempo of matches for us,” said Sir Alex Ferguson. “He’s been doing that since he’s come back, so it¹s a break for us. The form he’s showing now is as good as it¹s ever been.” Until last week’s 4-4 draw with Everton, Scholes had won all ten league games he had started and, perhaps more significantly, was absent for United¹s last three defeats to Athletic Bilbao home and away, and then at Wigan.
Defensive midfielder: Yaya Toure
When Yaya Toure had a trial at Arsenal back in 2001 when he was at Beveren, coach Arsene Wenger played him just behind the centre-forward. He has moved back since then but it is testament to his all-round ability that when David Silva was short of fitness last season, Yaya stepped in as playmaker. This season he has stayed in midfield where his strength, physique and winning mentality showed through. It’s often forgotten he was part of the 2009 Barcelona ‘six-trophies-in-a-year’ side have inspired City. “I like being in midfield, I like to be on the ball, to help out defensively but also to set up my team-mates,” he said. “I appreciate space and being able to use my strength and my technique.”
Attacking midfield (left): David Silva
“He could play any team in the world,” says Mancini of Silva, whose form may have dropped off in recent weeks but remains City’s best creative player with the vision and passing range to kill teams off in a second. No player has made more assists this season, and United have already struggled at his feet, as he made three and scored one in the 6-1 win at Old Trafford.
The fact that United once spoke to his former club Valencia about the possibility of signing him might have made that tougher to swallow. “He has transformed City from powerful to pretty, from mechanical to sometimes majestic,” wrote Paul Hayward in The Guardian.
Attacking midfield (right): Antonio Valencia
Even before his brilliant late goal broke the deadlock in a tense 2-0 win at Blackburn Rovers earlier this month, Valencia had been an important figure for United this season, setting up one fewer goals than Silva, in ten fewer starts. But he also offers more defensively: he played right-back for a while and Ferguson has sung his praises. “He can tackle, he can run, but he can also beat a man. He has got everything. We know all about Antonio’s qualities as an attacker, but he¹s so quick and so powerful that he’s also suited to a full-back role.” His low media profile keeps him out of the spotlight, but he has had a major influence this season.
Attacking midfield (centre): Wayne Rooney
Twitter rows, Fergie fall-outs, a blackmail plot and a Euro 2012 ban: it’s been quite some season for Wayne Rooney, though you would never have guessed it by watching him play. For two months (between September and December) he did not score at all, but he has notched 16 goals in his last 14 games and has not been booked once in the league. His tally for the season is 36 goals and Ferguson backed his claims to beat Van Persie to Footballer of the Year award.
Centre-forward: Sergio Aguero
It took Aguero nine minutes to score his first Premier League goal, as a substitute in the opening match of the season against Swansea, and another 20 before the next arrived. He has barely stopped since. That debut led to comparisons with Ali Benarbia, Denis Law and Trevor Francis, and Aguero’s season total stands at 22 goals in 28 league starts and 29 in 45 in all competitions. His partnership with Silva and—when he plays—Carlos Tevez, is a nightmare for defenders. City scored 60 league goals last season but this season have already got 87. More than anyone else, Aguero has made the difference.
Conclusion: City has the slight edge with six players over United’s five, but the closest picks might have made that gap even greater: I almost went for Clichy over Evra, for example, and Lescott over Ferdinand. The Scholes selection was also tough, given that he only started playing in January: had he missed out, Michael Carrick would have got the nod.
It’s no great surprise that City have more players in this team: their strength is the talent of their individuals, while United’s achievement in being top at this stage of the season is so impressive as fewer of their players have shone. That they are a draw (on Monday) and two wins away from the title is down to one man more than any other, and he is the man who has to coach this Manchester Best XI: Sir Alex Ferguson.