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 By Michael Cox

Newcomers Ibrahimovic and Bravo headline Manchester derby

When United meet City in Saturday's Manchester derby, there will be storylines galore.  But who are the most important players to watch? Michael Cox picked three from each side.   

Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Manchester United)

Although the Swede is often criticised for not performing in big Champions League matches, his record in major league games is excellent. He had a fine record in the Milan derby, scored minutes into his El Clasico debut and regularly netted against Marseille when playing for PSG.  

Against his old foe, Pep Guardiola, Ibrahimovic will be even more fired up than usual. He might have something of a lonely game if Jose Mourinho decides to play cautiously, but Ibra could thrive against City's somewhat lightweight centre-back combination. John Stones, for all his quality in possession, can struggle against strong number nines, and Ibrahimovic's physical power shouldn't be underestimated.  

Few centre-forwards adapt to the Premier League so smoothly, but Ibrahimovic's quality shouldn't come as a surprise -- English football has arguably underestimated him over the past decade. It would be typical for him to settle his first Manchester derby with a moment of magic.  

Manchester UnitedManchester United
Manchester CityManchester City
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Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United)

Manchester United's primary tactical task this weekend should be protecting the space in front of their defence. City's shape for this season features a 4-3-3 with both David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne springing forward from conventional central midfield positions, and some of their interplay has been quite magnificent.  

Therefore, United need a solid midfield performance from their two holding players, and Mourinho might decide to beef up his midfield with the introduction of a second defensive player, pushing Paul Pogba into a more advanced role. Could Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera or Morgan Schneiderlin come in?  

It is Fellaini, however, who is assured of a start in one of the two deep midfield roles. He has impressed for United under Mourinho, with his physical power as useful as ever, but his positioning has been particularly good, too. Having often played in a more advanced role under Louis van Gaal, Fellaini has readjusted impressively to this more defensive position, and he will have a crucial role to play in stopping City's two dangermen.  

Eric Bailly (Manchester United)  

United fans knew what to expect from Ibrahimovic, Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, but centre-back Eric Bailly was a relative unknown. Nevertheless, the Ivorian international has looked excellent so far at the heart of Manchester United's defence, and he won United's Player of the Month award for August.  

Saturday will be his biggest test yet, and Bailly won't know what to expect. He'll presumably be delighted that Sergio Aguero is out injured, but what threat will Bailly play against instead? The traditional centre-forward qualities of Kelechi Iheanacho? The speed into the channels of Raheem Sterling, Nolito or Leroy Sane? Perhaps even a false nine with David Silva dropping deep between the lines?  

The major question mark about Bailly is his positioning, which is inevitable for a young defender in a new league. He has impressed so far by responding to things quickly and decisively, but against top-class opponents, centre-backs need to read the game and anticipate danger. He'll need intelligence to adjust his positioning according to his direct opponent, but he'll relish the challenge.  

Raheem Sterling (Manchester City)

Raheem Sterling has been in top form for Manchester City, but Manchester United provides a bigger test.

Sterling's first Manchester City campaign was disappointing, his Euro 2016 even more underwhelming. But Guardiola already appears to have rejuvenated his career; Sterling looks lively, threatening and -- perhaps most crucially -- highly motivated.

So far, he has started on the right flank. Sterling has been told to stay wide and stretch the play, dribbling at opposition left-backs repeatedly. But without Aguero, there's a good chance Sterling will be deployed upfront, a position he played occasionally last season, including when he hit a hat trick against Bournemouth in October.

Sterling's major weakness, however, remains his finishing. He's simply not good at striking the ball, often snatching at chances and failing to generate the necessary power. He can't realistically expect to play a centre-forward role regularly if his shooting doesn't improve -- and this weekend, in the biggest game of the season so far, a crucial goal would illustrate his continuing improvement.

Claudio Bravo (Manchester City)

Guardiola is expected to throw in his new goalkeeper at the deep end, and a debut away at Old Trafford is a huge first test for the Chilean. Of course, Claudio Bravo is a highly experienced, reliable goalkeeper accustomed to performing on the biggest stage, so the occasion itself shouldn't bother him. Premier League football, though, is different in style to La Liga.

As his opposite number, David De Gea, realised when joining Manchester United five years ago, goalkeepers are tested physically in English football. Bravo is famed for his fine distribution skills, precisely the reason Guardiola recruited him, but physically, he's hardly the most imposing goalkeeper at just six feet.

Mourinho will look to put him under pressure in this sense, and Bravo should expect plenty of men around him the first time United win a corner. He's not particularly good at commanding his box, though, and City don't have a particularly tall team this season. Bravo will eventually prove a fine addition, but his first match might be difficult.

John Stones (Manchester City)

A player purchased for his ability in possession, Stones should have plenty of opportunities to demonstrate his passing quality here. Manchester United are likely to drop off, keep it tight between the lines and deny City space in the final third. The onus, therefore, will be on Stones to come forward on the ball.

Stones doesn't necessarily need to provide killer passes. He simply needs to attract opposition midfielders toward him, creating space for his more creative teammates in advanced positions. It's funny how much opponents panic when they realise a talented centre-back is going on a dribble forward; there's often a moment of panic before someone actually commits and engages.

But Stones' defensive abilities will be tested, too. He has yet to form a reliable centre-back partnership with any particular individual at City, and against the threat of Ibrahimovic, Stones needs to demonstrate that he's physically capable and intelligent enough to read the game. Sometimes guilty of getting caught too high up the pitch, his positioning must be flawless this time around.

Michael Cox is the editor of and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.


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