Manchester City have fared excellently in recent derbies: last season's 6-1 victory at Old Trafford was an astounding result, while the 1-0 win at the Etihad Stadium in April gave them a slender advantage going into the final two matches of the season. However, City's 1-0 FA Cup semi-final triumph in 2011 was Roberto Mancini's first significant victory over Sir Alex Ferguson, and it was this game that provided the springboard to later success.
On a classic sunny afternoon at Wembley, City's key player was Yaya Touré, who energetically charged forward from an advanced midfield position. The nature of his winning strike was a fantastic microcosm of the two sides' contrasting approaches – the Ivorian intercepted a wayward sideways ball from Michael Carrick to Paul Scholes, and roared past United's defence on his way to goal. United had concentrated on calm, patient midfield distribution, while Touré offered the raw physicality with which they struggle to cope.
Last season Touré played a deeper midfield role and, although he was quiet in the 6-1 game, Ferguson still attempted to nullify him at the Etihad, handing Park Ji-sung a first league start in three months in a central midfield role. Park had famously performed an excellent marking job on Andrea Pirlo in 2010 but, while the Italian is a gloriously creative yet fragile player, Touré had the power to outshine Park, who repeatedly lost his footing. At the point Vincent Kompany headed in the winner, Touré had completed more passes than any other player, underlining his constant influence, while his forward running pushed Park deeper, leaving Wayne Rooney desperately isolated. Park never played for United again.
Touré will continue in that deep role on Sunday, because the alternative options alongside Gareth Barry – Jack Rodwell and Javi García – are yet to convince. Ferguson will presumably attempt to stop Touré again, and the obvious man for that role is Rooney – who has often deputised in midfield recently, combining aggressive tackling with admirable discipline.
Yet in the past couple of years, Rooney has proved unreliable when asked to play defensive-minded roles in big matches. In the 2011 Champions League final against Barcelona, for example, he scored a fine equaliser but failed to occupy Sergio Busquets during the long periods of tiki-taka. Last summer, as Italy dominated England in their Euro 2012 quarter-final, he was curiously neglectful in tracking Pirlo, who continually lofted balls over the England defence, prompting both Roy Hodgson and team-mates to shout at Rooney, telling him to stick tighter.
These displays have been surprising, especially in contrast to his performance last week at Reading, when his defensive work was faultless. In big games, perhaps Rooney becomes increasingly determined to influence the game in an attacking sense – and his spectacular bicycle kick winner at Old Trafford two seasons ago demonstrates those capabilities – but on Sunday, Ferguson may request pure discipline.
Michael Cox is the editor of the tactics website zonalmarking.net