Midfield battle key to Manchester derby clash
As seismic as it may be for Manchester City to win their first top-flight championship in 44 years, thereby denying their arch rivals Manchester United, both teams will be concentrating first on keeping 11 players on the field when they lock horns on Monday at Etihad Stadium.
Ignoring the Community Shield, previous encounters this season have involved a man being sent off, with Jonny Evans seeing red in City's 6-1 rout at Old Trafford and Vincent Kompany dismissed during United's 3-2 FA Cup victory across town.
Both punishments had an adverse effect on the respective games, although City did stage a fight-back in the second half of the third-round cup tie following their skipper's first-half departure.
So with City three points behind United and needing the win far more than their neighbours, how will managers Roberto Mancini and Sir Alex Ferguson prepare their teams ahead of the potentially historic derby?
Former United midfielder Nicky Butt and ex-City striker Uwe Rosler assess the key contests on the pitch and explain where they think the game will be won and lost.
City's attack versus United's defence
Of both team's back fours, United's looks the more vulnerable. Having conceded four goals against Everton last Sunday, questions have re-appeared about the form of Rafael, Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans and Patrice Evra.
That is harsh, according to Butt, on a defence which has the best record in the Premier League for clean sheets (18) and is second only to City in terms of goals conceded (32 to City's 27).
But up against the top-flight's leading scorers they will have a far sterner test in contrast to their previous seven games which have all been against teams in the bottom half of the table. Mancini has also hinted he might recall Mario Balotelli, scorer of two goals in the 6-1 victory.
"The defence has been outstanding over the last few months," Butt says. "It wasn't great against Everton but I think that was down to not defending as a unit rather than the individual players. They showed some weakness there but also naivety in the way they did not shut up shop.
"City strikers Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez are top-class players but when you are a top player, like all the Manchester United defence and midfield are, you thrive on playing against better players."
Rosler believes City's attacking options are enough to win the game but says: "The key to it is that City keep their nerve. Everybody connected with Manchester City knows there is enough quality in the team and enough experience there, and it's all about bringing those thoughts to the match."
The midfield battle
City's FA Cup semi-final victory over United last season came when Mancini chose to let Yaya Toure off the leash and play him in a five-man midfield behind Balotelli. And in the rousing Old Trafford victory this term Mancini struck a fine balance by pairing Balotelli and Aguero up front, with James Milner adding defensive cover in wide midfield areas.
Part of City's success in that encounter was how Milner and David Silva were more willing than United's wide men to cross the pitch to overload opposite wings, thereby creating an extra man in midfield without sacrificing an attacker.
But against Everton, United winger Nani showed he can pop up in danger areas across the pitch and Butt says the Portuguese underlined his status as a big game player in that game and will keep his place.
The question now is whether the City boss will go a step further and maintain a recent midfield of Toure, Gareth Barry, Silva and Samir Nasri.
Needing a win, it is certainly the most attacking option but recent history between the two teams would suggest the Italian might be more cautious to begin with. And if that is the case, will Ferguson also attempt to bolster central areas by asking Wayne Rooney to play a deeper role?
"I'm concerned about the United midfield being outnumbered," Butt says. "City are very strong in there and I think United will have to match up with them."
Mancini will have studied the Everton draw when the Toffees' five-man midfield swarmed around Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes. However, the City boss will be wary of United's threats, too.
Winger Antonio Valencia, who did not play at Old Trafford last time, and Scholes have been catalysts for United in their run of 12 wins in the last 15 league games.
United's attack versus City's defence
As solid as City look when skipper Kompany is in the side, he and his fellow defenders will have to be on top form to deal with the twin threat of Danny Welbeck and Rooney.
According to former United right-back Gary Neville, against Everton the pair were reminiscent of former strikers Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole in their pomp. The England duo have registered 35 goals and eight assists between them in the Premier League this season to go with the three they scored against City in January's FA Cup win.
Butt says the pair are "forming a great partnership" yet Rosler thinks City have enough quality to deal with them and believes it is his former team's destiny to win the title.
"Looking from a manager's point of view, when I see the management working with a group of players and guiding the club, you see a natural progression via the style of play, the results and where they are over the whole season," he says.
"Everybody else thought it was over, but I always said from the beginning of the season that this year is our year. For some reason I believe in destiny.
"When Everton came back to get a draw against United, that was the opener for us. Now we have to make sure we use that second chance. Everybody is prepared and knows what is at stake. I can't just wait for the game to start on Monday."