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High-stakes clash in Manchester derby

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Alex Ferguson is gearing up for what he has called the biggest Manchester derby in his near 25-year spell as United manager, tomorrow’s home game against English Premier League leaders City.

City’s two-point lead over their neighbours and confident mood on the back of three successive wins in all competitions has made the encounter less about local rivalry and more about title credentials.

Dismissed by Ferguson in recent seasons as a “small club with a small mentality” and “noisy neighbours”, City will have been the first to notice the change in the way the Scot is viewing the fixture. Asked if it was the biggest Manchester derby since he took over, United’s manager told local media: “Yes, I think so.”

Were it not for the fact the game is at Old Trafford, where United have not lost for 18 months, City could have claimed to be favourites due to their better recent form.

Where United have looked shaky in defence and too ready to give away possession, drawing three and winning two of their last five games in all competitions, City have been more comfortable.

Roberto Mancini’s side have averaged over three goals a game to go top of the table with 22 points from eight matches.

Both sides are unbeaten in the league and go into the match buoyed by their first Champions League victories of the season in midweek, City’s coming after a stoppage-time winner from Sergio Aguero and United’s thanks to two Wayne Rooney penalties.

The pair have already met this season in August’s Community Shield curtain-raiser, United coming back from two goals down to win 3-2.

There was tension between the clubs last month when City midfielder Owen Hargreaves questioned the medical treatment he had received during his injury-ravaged years at United.

He is now fit and has a chance to feature against his former club with much to prove.

Aguero, who came off the bench to score in the 2-1 triumph over Villarreal on Tuesday, could return to the starting line-up while Mario Balotelli may be preferred to Edin Dzeko up front after the Bosnian wasted several chances against the Spaniards.

United should have captain Nemanja Vidic back for his first league game since August following a calf injury. The Serb was sent off in the midweek 2-0 win at Romanians Otelul Galati.

Away from Manchester, third-placed Chelsea make the short trip to neighbours Queens Park Rangers on Sunday looking to gain ground on the pacesetters.

Arsenal look to build on last week’s win over Sunderland that lifted them into the top half of the table when they host Stoke City tomorrow.

Newcastle United, in fourth, seek to maintain their unbeaten start at home to Wigan Athletic today.

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