Best Manchester XI This Season (so far) – 6 United and 5 Manchester City stars
David De Gea – To arrive in a different country and footballing culture at the age of twenty is not easy, even less so when you have the highest price-tag for a keeper in England hanging around your neck. The former Atlético Madrid guardian has shown immense strength of character to overcome an uncertain debut season and get over the post-Schmeichel curse that arguably only Edwin Van Der Sar avoided – his agility and reflexes have never been in question, but he has now developed a more commanding presence. Joe Hart has been dogged with inconsistency, despite clearly still being a talented player, and had his mentality challenged my being dropped for the second time by Manuel Pellegrini in September.
Pablo Zabaleta – The savage tackling Argentine can be relied upon to go into battle in a derby atmosphere and has held off the challenge of the arrival of Arsenal’s latest contribution to Eastlands’ growing array of handsomely paid superstars, Bacary Sagna. His willingness to get forwards helps offer width in the final third for City, but unlike United’s Brazilian right back Rafael, he rarely gets caught out of position. His two assists away to Hull City have added to his value in the side, but in five out of his six games he has been part of a defence that has conceded in the Premier League.
Vincent Kompany – While both sides have struggled to settle on their ideal defensive lineup, the tall Belgian has been perhaps the one constant. He hasn’t missed a minute of City’s league campaign so far while mentoring £32 million man Eliaquim Mangala, but hasn’t managed to make his presence in the opposition box count yet. His ability to keep free-scoring Diego Costa out at the Etihad in September on Mangala’s debut showed he is capable of going toe to toe in any physical battle without being intimidated, like the Nemanja Vidic of old.
Marcos Rojo -The Argentine World Cup defender has quietly gone about his business in the ever-changing United backline; there have been eight different central defensive lineups so far this season, and his mobility has provided a useful foil for the more physical Chris Smalling or Phil Jones. His versatility will be called upon throughout the season, and while Mangala has a bright future, he hasn’t nailed down his spot yet. If Louis van Gaal brings in a more experienced partner for Rojo in January, competition for places will intensify with Jones, Smalling, Tyler Blackett, Jonny Evans and Paddy McNair already waiting in the wings.
Gaël Clichy – Only takes this place by virtue of having played more than Luke Shaw. England’s most expensive defender will certainly become a more consistent player in the long term, but with Clichy you have a full back who is comfortable on the ball and is willing to get forward. On Sunday, this adventurous nature is where United can hurt City by encouraging either Angel Di Maria or Rooney to get behind the Frenchman. Aleksandr Kolarov is much more imposing playing with a rocket of left foot, but he barely seems to see himself as a defender, so can’t be relied upon to hold his position.
Daley Blind – Potentially one of the bargains of the season. His cultured upbringing under the eagle eye of former Rangers midfielder Ronald de Boer at Ajax’s legendary youth system means he is perfectly adept at controlling the game from a ‘quarterback’ position in front of the back four. His youth is merged with his experience of winning titles and performing in Europe, and his pace means he covers a huge amount of ground. His role at the foot of a diamond is vital in allowing Di Maria, Rooney, Falcao (who is out of the derby with knock from training) and Mata license to roam.
Ángel Di María – England’s most expensive import has endeared himself to the Old Trafford crowds with his phenomenal work rate; those who saw him as an out-and-out winger at Benfica would be surprised at his maturity that Ancelotti helped nurture at the Bernabéu. He has fitted into van Gaal’s fluid system seamlessly thanks to his pace, stamina and creativity, and he has been involved in more goals than any other United player. If United want to break down the towering pair of Komoany and Mangala, they will need their busy talisman at his best.
David Silva – The silky Spaniard is getting back to his best form for City this season, and with his average return of an assist every three games in nearly 200 appearances for City, he is a constant threat with his vision and passing. His absence in Sunday’s clash at the Etihad will merely open the door to the tempermental but brilliant Samir Nasri, so it’s almost a case of out of the frying pan, into the fire for United’s defence, but Silva’s cool head under pressure will be an big loss for the reigning champions.
Wayne Rooney – Skipper of club and country, £300,000 a week and straight back into the lineup for Sunday after a three match suspension after his nonsensical kick at Stewart Downing in the 2-1 win at home to West Ham in September – life is good from one perspective for Wayne Rooney. He has never quite managed to regain that sparkle since his bungled transfer request three years ago, however, even if his statistics are still formidable. He has scored three an set up two in his six matches so far this season, but he has to prove he is worth his place after a recent upturn in Juan Mata’s form. The derby is just the sort of game he needs to grab by the scruff of the neck and silence the murmurs of discontent.
Radamel Falcao – Another absentee from Sunday’s crucial game, but his class has shone through, even if he hasn’t hit the back of the net as often as he would have liked. The truth is, the Colombian has arrived at a club already containing two world-class strikers in a system with only one man up top. His beautiful curling assist for Robin van Persie with his wrong foot against Leicester was so precise even Harry Redknapp’s wife could have scored. This unselfishness will be a crucial trait as he looks to earn a permanent move from Monaco, but he is at heart a poacher; 139 career league goals in 208 games are numbers reminiscent of Ruud van Nistelrooy.
Sergio Aguëro – Diego Maradona’s son-in-law is lethal and City’s most potent weapon in the box with a goal every 68 minutes – only Diego Costa can better such a spectacular ratio. Edin Dzeko has never complained about his shoddy treatment and has quietly but consistently scored regularly for City, but this season has only found the net twice in eight appearances. Nobody will forget his most dramatic of season finale winners against QPR in 2013; such poise, balance, awareness and confidence are trademarks of the stocky South American.