If you’d asked the majority at the start of the season, a Manchester derby in late April was not expected to be about jostling for a top four position. A title deciding battle was likely, with probably both sides in contention at the Premier League summit. Thursday’s match, however, sees the league’s fourth and fifth placed sides compete for the silver medal of the Premier League: a top four finish.
Separated by a solitary point on the cusp of Champions League qualification, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola have underachieved in their respective debut seasons in Manchester. While the squads may have underperformed, the fact that neither manager has led a genuine title push from their team is a disappointment. Both Manchester clubs will demand a top two finish at the very least next season, regardless of European commitments, injuries or misjudged transfers.
Under the lights at the Etihad Stadium, we know we will witness a feisty encounter. The managers will be leaping around like dogs on Bonfire Night, while the players will be sent out with intricate tactical plans that could quickly be torn up with one foolish challenge or flailing elbow. The much-maligned atmosphere at Eastlands will be fearsome, though, particularly with so much riding on this match.
Manchester United – who should have been expecting to finish in the top four – will be frustrated with the season to date. They could yet end the campaign with two trophies, however, while Manchester City are doomed to finish the campaign without a nice bit of silverware. This will be the first time ever in Guardiola’s managerial career that has happened.
Europa League matches cannot be blamed by Mourinho this time. Manchester United played on Sunday, just as their hosts did. Irrelevant to the result, though, we can be sure that the former Real Madrid boss will find some way to mention the number of fixtures his side have had to play this season.
City, on the other hand, will be tested physically and psychologically on the night. Often criticised for lacking the grit to go with their gifted squad, the team must pick themselves up from the extra-time heartbreak at Wembley on Sunday. Guardiola may well rotate as a result – and Sergio Aguero did not play the full 120 minutes – but he cannot afford to drop points here. A draw might just about do to keep hold of the fourth spot, though it will give no margin for error in their remaining fixtures.
Despite Mourinho’s aggressive complaints throughout the season and open dislike for competition, the Europa League provides solace for the Red Devils. With a winnable tie against Celta Vigo next up and many of the competition’s strongest sides eliminated, lifting Europe’s secondary trophy is well within their reach. That – thanks to a recent rule change – now rewards the club with a Champions League berth next season.
A season of underachievement in Manchester can yet see both teams qualify for next season’s Champions League. United have a second chance, though, while City have no such luxury. Guardiola’s side need a win tonight as a result, with the visitors playing under significantly less pressure thanks to their Europa jaunt.