Ahead of Thursday night’s crunch Manchester derby at the Etihad Stadium, both Manchester clubs are at risk of dropping out of the top four. Though they do both sit at the top of another table: the injury list.
With eight injuries themselves, Manchester United’s squad is looking increasingly threadbare. Marcos Rojo’s long-term knee injury could well speed up the returns of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, who were both injured on international duty – but that may only result in extra injuries at a later stage.
The other half of Manchester don’t get away lightly either. City have seven injuries, according to PhysioRoom.com, and although Gabriel Jesus is back in training, a physically draining FA Cup semi-final defeat on Sunday could yet inflict further damage to Pep Guardiola’s side.
That is surely the biggest positive that Manchester United have going into the game. Both teams have similar recent form having won their last two in the Premier League and both are within a point of each other in the table. Neither side have done so well against their top six rivals this season, either – though United’s recent victory over Chelsea is surely cause for optimism about their development under Mourinho. Instead, it should be City’s growing injury concerns that lead United to believe in pulling off a shock.
That shock, though, shouldn’t be beating City at the Etihad: no-one would make City clear favourites in a game that can go either way. But the feat United should be looking to pull off is a top four finish, which – until a few weeks ago – seemed very much like a pipe dream.
Focus went onto winning the Europa League instead of entering the top four, and the Red Devils’ run-in, coupled with their increased number of games, made that seem like the obvious choice. But City’s squad almost looks to be falling apart at the seams; David Silva was forced off through injury, there are doubts over Sergio Aguero’s fitness for the derby, and there must surely be a huge question mark over Vincent Kompany’s ability to play 90 minutes just four days after he played the full 120 on Sunday. That’s not just a question of whether his body is up to the task, but a question of whether or not risking him is wise, prudent or even – at this point – humane.
None of this, however, means that United are favourites for a top four spot, nor even favourites for the derby. After this weekend, City will have a week off to regroup whilst United will travel to north western Spain to take on Celta in Vigo. And even before the derby, City’s form doesn’t indicate that they’ll be walkovers at all.
The previous match doesn’t always mean a great deal going into the next one, but United must surely take heart from their opponents’ depleted squad, particularly at a time when their own squad is less than healthy.
In the end, though, it’s the underwhelming performances of both sides that has led us to this: neither team will be happy that this late-April derby is a scrap over the minor placings rather than a title decider, and that injuries and fatigue seem to be a bigger consideration than form and talent.
Maybe that’s why both teams are heading up the wrong table at this point in the season.