Even a draw will see Man United lose to Man City

If Manchester City’s last four games have constituted a slump, it could not have come at a worse time.

And yet, frighteningly, if you looked at results, the only evidence you could possibly find of such a downturn in form would be their defeat in a game which meant literally nothing to the football club.

Indeed, Wednesday night’s trip to Kharkiv to face Shakhtar Donetsk was so meaningless that it actually became meaningful: the only thing that could have had an impact on the team was injuries and tiredness just days before the biggest Manchester derby in years. It was a game to fear for all the wrong reasons.

Indeed, last weekend, Paul Pogba spoke to the media about his desire to see City players injured.ause then, presumably, he feels that the playing field would be levelled. Instead, just hours after putting his foot in it with the media, he planted his foot into Hector Bellerin’s leg, and cries of Karma were as inevitable as the red card that followed. City won’t want to let that advantage slip.

There will be derby-day consequences to that red card, however. Not having Paul Pogba means that United will surely fear reverting back to type: in the months without their most expensive ever player, Jose Mourinho’s side slumped to the position in which they now find themselves, trailing Manchester City by eight points.

But it’s not just the results that stand out. Without Pogba, United have lacked the midfield presence of a player who can link defence and attack. The Frenchman’s ability to bring his team up the pitch with flair and directness has been missing, especially in big games against the likes of Liverpool and Chelsea. Both of those games saw United fail to score, and it’s clear to see why: without Pogba, they are a less potent counter-attacking force.

It’s unclear if the difference between the United we saw in Pogba’s absence and the more lively attacking team we saw against Newcastle upon his return and, especially, against Arsenal at the Emirates last weekend, was really down to him or whether it simply coincided with an upturn in form. We’ll find out on Sunday.

But if it’s the former, United are in trouble.

This season, Manchester City have thrilled in attack, but against teams who sit deep and defend in an organised fashion, they’ve struggled of late. Huddersfield, Southampton and West Ham have all frustrated Pep Guardiola’s team and forced them to score late goals to nick the points in the end. United will probably take the same approach, and are a better defence than anything City have faced so far. But their diminished ability to hit their opponents on the counter might prove a problem, so too might losing a player who can compete in the midfield with the midfield trio of Fernandinho, David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne.

If United keep City at bay defensively – something no team has done this season – that’s still only half the job. This isn’t quite a must-win game for United. But it’s certainly must-not-lose. And yet, even if United force City into dropping two points for the first time since August, they’ll have dropped two points themselves, unable to take advantage.

And so, like City’s slump in form, Paul Pogba’s suspension couldn’t have come at a worse time. This weekend, they may well be able to frustrate the most potent attack in the league, but without their best counter-attacking player, will they be able to get the goal they need to close the gap on their rivals?

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