With the Premier League title on the line, Saturday’s instalment could well go down as the most significant Manchester derby of all time. Indeed, Manchester City need just one more win to clinch this season’s English crown and could make it all the more special by doing so against their historic rivals, Manchester United, a club they’ve lived in the shadow of for much of their modern history.
But if there’s one manager in world football who knows how to spoil the party, it’s unquestionably Jose Mourinho. So, will the Old Trafford gaffer stop City recording a legendary win over United to halt the celebrations, at least for another week, or can nothing stop this rampant Citizens side from getting themselves over the line on Saturday?
This week’s experts, Football FanCast’s United-mad Sam Preston and City-loving Chris McMullan, share their thoughts and predictions ahead of the 5.30pm kickoff…
City find themselves in unfamiliar, uncertain territory heading into Saturday’s game after suffering only their fourth defeat of the season against Liverpool in midweek, a 3-0 humbling at Anfield in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final. The explosive performance decimated the aura of invincibility that has accompanied this City side for much of the season, and Guardiola will need to ensure his players bounce back quickly.
What’s the biggest positive City can take into Saturday’s game?
Chris: “The obvious one: there’s a league title at stake. This could be the earliest anyone’s ever won the title and to do it in front of your own fans would be special enough let alone humiliating Manchester United in the process. On the other hand, this might well have been a game Guardiola might have looked at as a chance to rest certain key players ahead of the return leg against Liverpool on Tuesday night. Now, given morale would plummet even further thanks to another big defeat that may not be an option: that’s the biggest dilemma facing City on Saturday.”
And that shock defeat to Liverpool has created a real headache for the champions in waiting. On the one hand, beating Manchester United to win the title would be an unforgettably iconic moment; on the other, City will have six more opportunities to lift the crown this season, but only one to come back against Liverpool in the second leg and make this season’s semi-finals of Europe’s top competition.
If City could only win one of the two games, which would you choose – the Manchester derby or the second leg against Liverpool?
Chris: “That’s not a position City have found themselves in very often this season! It’s always great to beat United but frankly we have bigger fish to fry: cross-city rivalries are all well and good, but the truth is that if we don’t win the title this weekend we’ll do it the one after or the next one after that. United are already 16 points behind us and they’re still best of the rest. That’s plenty of humiliation to be getting on with already.
“We’re so far behind Liverpool in the Champions League tie that winning the game won’t necessarily mean qualification – in fact, the odds are that it almost-certainly won’t – so perhaps it would be a gamble. But of City’s 14 Premier League home games this season, eight have been won by a margin of three or more goals. That’s 57%, by the way, including a 5-0 win over Liverpool earlier in the season. Most of the time, City win by a margin to take them through on Tuesday night.
“Liverpool may be the one opposition who seem to know how to beat Guardiola’s Blues, but if there’s one team and one venue where it’s possible this season, it has to be City at the Etihad.”
But has the defeat to Liverpool highlighted some weaknesses United can exploit this weekend?
Sam:“Playing at a high tempo and fielding players with pace in behind to trouble City would put the cat amongst the pigeons. We have the players – Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard – and City’s confidence must have been shaken by Wednesday’s loss. Will Mourinho do it? I don’t think so. He will be keen to spoil the party by I’d expect him to try and do so by stifling City.”
Style of football has been one of the core debates at the summit of the Premier League this season. Manchester United fans have not only been forced to watch Guardiola’s side play gorgeous, flowing football all season but also their other key rivals, Liverpool, thump City at Anfield this week embracing the same ambitious brand of attacking play.
Have United fans become envious of the way City and Liverpool play, compared to Mourinho’s often pragmatic tactics?
Sam: “The fans are jealous of City and Liverpool. Many United fans would love to be looking forward to Saturday’s game thinking their side is capable of giving City a bashing in the same way Liverpool did, but it simply isn’t the case. Moreover, the conservative tactics don’t really work. Liverpool’s big-game record is generally very good, but United have won only one of nine away games against the big six over the last two seasons. These are the games that highlight United’s shortcomings.”
With City so far ahead the rest of the Premier League this season, including United, it’s easy to forget how much quality this Red Devils side has. Paul Pogba is still one of the most expensive players of all time, Alexis Sanchez has been arguably the most effective forward in the Premier League since arriving from Barcelona and the likes of Rashford and Martial are exciting young threats as well.
Which player do you see as United’s key danger man?
Chris: “It has to be Sanchez. You may remember that City tried to sign him; the footballing Gods certainly haven’t forgotten. Apart from being one of the best players in world football on his day, Sanchez also possesses certain direct qualities which could hurt City’s fairly lumbering centre-back partnership of Nicolas Otamendi and Vincent Kompany if he’s allowed to cut inside.”
And which player do United need to nullify to stop City?
Sam: “Kevin De Bruyne. Sane and Sterling offer the pace in behind but it’s De Bruyne who always seems to run the game against United. Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay will look to stop him playing in the same way that James Milner and Jordan Henderson did on Wednesday but it’s a tough ask. He’s an exceptional talent.”
Where will this game be lost and won?
Sam:“It’s a cliche but it’s in midfield. City want to move everything through the centre, with intricate passing and quick play. In this type of game, United will do everything they can not to play through midfield. They’ll play long, in behind and wide just to avoid getting caught on the ball in the centre of the pitch. The engine room is where City will expect to dominate.”
Chris:“United’s recent big games have shown that if they can get an early foothold in the match they’re hard to dislodge. Against both Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium before Christmas and again against Liverpool the other week, United managed to bully opposition centre-backs into mistakes before taking an early lead. If they can do that against City, they’ll be hard to break down again. But if De Bruyne and David Silva can get a hold of the game in a way they couldn’t against Liverpool, I think City’s domination will be telling at some point.”
And finally lads, let’s hear your score predictions…
Chris: “2-1: an early goal and a play-within-yourself second half to set City up nicely for an epic night on Tuesday (which is likely to end in glorious, valiant failure).”
Sam: “I’ll never predict United to lose so i’ll say 0-0 to keep the champagne on ice for another week. That’ll do me.”