By Simon Evans
MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - Manchester United's height and strength at set-pieces could provide the key to a victory over Premier League leaders Manchester City in Sunday's derby clash, former United assistant manager Mike Phelan believes.
City's outstanding ability to keep possession and rotate the ball mean United are likely to focus on their own highly effective counter-attacking game with set-pieces a potentially fruitful route to goal as well, says Phelan, former right-hand man of Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford.
"This could be potentially a game-winner – set pieces. Tight games sometimes you find a way and that might be through a mistake in the penalty area on a set-piece or good delivery into the penalty area causing mistakes," he told Reuters in an interview.
With Paul Pogba missing as he starts a three-game suspension, United manager Jose Mourinho has the option of bringing in six foot four Belgian midfielder Marouane Fellaini into his side giving an already taller and more physical United another weapon.
With the former Everton midfielder in their side, United have won 89 percent of their matches compared to just 50 percent without him.
"Fellaini would be an option for Manchester United and I think United this season have definitely got a bit more physicality about them, more presence about them," says Phelan.
"I think that stems from Mourinho's ability, you only have to look back to his history he has had Chelsea who were a big team and he does like that bit of muscle and physicality to his teams. I think that would be a good area the set-pieces and Fellaini would be a good option," he added.
Phelan, a former United player who managed Hull City in the Premier League last season, does not expect Mourinho to be concerned about his team having less possession than their rivals - even at home.
"I think from City it will be business as usual but from United's point of view possession won't be an issue. I think he will be happy to accept that because it is not just United they keep the ball from but everyone else," Phelan said.
"It will be about a slight containment with a counter-attacking effect which I think United have been terrific at this season and exposing, if possible, any weaknesses through lack of possession, through giving the ball away from City's point of view. Then hopefully you take your chances when they come."
Phelan believes the high stakes, with City taking into the game an eight point lead over second-placed United, means an open game is unlikely.
"The way the game is being set up, everybody wants this open free-flowing game and two teams to go head-to-head and be entertaining. I am not so sure that can happen simply because of what it means to both clubs to get a result in the game.
"A win for Man City puts them into double figures away from their nearest rival, which is a lot of points. For Manchester United's view, they have got to try and draw some of those points back so that it makes it more interesting second half of the season.
"It will be about attitude but both managers certainly won't want to come away with nothing. But if one team can take the initiative and show the form that both teams are showing, good results, good performances, then it could be one of these all-time derbies that give us something to shout about," he said.
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Christian Radnedge)