As far as Manchester derbies go, few have rivalled the importance of this Saturday’s instalment. A win will result in a record-breaking Premier League title for Manchester City, and humiliation for Manchester United in the process.
Don’t rule out a Joe Mourinho masterclass in party-pooping though, especially with City now needing a huge victory over Liverpool on Tuesday night to get through to the semi-finals of the Champions League.
But can history tell us anything about this fixture? How could the referee influence the match? Who enters Saturday’s clash in better form? And which manager is faced with the more pertinent injury problems?
Here’s everything you need to know for a potentially historic Manchester derby…
Even though United have been the far more dominant club throughout the Premier League era, City have always held their own in this fixture, actually beating the Red Devils five times in the top flight between 2002 and 2008 when they were little more than mere mid-tablers. And in recent years, City have been well on top – they’ve won eight of the last 13 meetings, while never suffering any of their three defeats by more than two goals.
However, two of those losses came at the Etihad Stadium and that has been a recurring theme for City against United, who actually boast a better win rate on City’s patch than the Sky Blues themselves.
That will give the Red Devils real confidence despite City’s utter dominance at home this season, but United do have a curious knack of picking up red cards against their local rivals.
Although City suffered a humbling defeat to Liverpool in midweek, in terms of recent Premier League form there really isn’t all that much to choose between both Manchester clubs, the only difference being that City have dropped a mere two points – away to Burnley at Turf Moor – compared to United’s three in the form of a shock loss to Newcastle.
However, we are still talking about a team that has lost just one Premier League game all season, a prior loss at Anfield, compared to another that is 16 points behind in the table after five defeats – including one in the reverse fixture back in December. In terms of goals and clean sheets too, the gap between these two sides has remained obvious during the last six league games.
If there’s one clear positive for the Red Devils though, it’s the immaculate form of Romelu Lukaku, matching Sergio Aguero’s input during United’s last six outings. In fact, across all competitions, the Belgium international has scored or assisted in eight of his last nine games.
Mourinho will no doubt be hoping Martin Atkinson can inadvertently aid his mission to stifle City on Saturday but ironically, he would probably benefit from a stricter referee.
Compared to the other 19 referees to work in the top flight this season, Atkinson is very much in the middle of the pack for fouls per tackle, fouls per game and yellow cards per game – in contrast, a real disciplinarian would have helped United slow down City’s play with streetwise fouls and niggling challenges.
At the same time, Atkinson hasn’t shown the level of lenience to suggest he’ll let United get away with overtly physical tackles either, so there isn’t really much for United – or City – to gain from having Atkinson in charge of this one.
That being said, penalties seem incredibly unlikely, which may well help United’s cause if they’re pinned back in their own box for large periods, and only two referees to officiate more than one Premier League game this season have overseen a lesser percentage of home wins.
After using a 3-5-2 system against City and something between 3-4-3 and 4-5-1 in the 3-0 defeat to Liverpool, we’re expecting Guardiola to return to basics this weekend – City’s basics, that is, which is still far more complicated than what most teams could imagine.
That translates as reinstating the 4-3-3 system which has most consistently produced City’s best football this season, with David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne pulling the strings in loose midfield roles.
Overall then, that’s three changes from the side that lost to Liverpool on Wednesday night, with Fabian Delph, Raheem Sterling – who Transfermarkt value at £72million – and Sergio Aguero all returning to the starting XI.
The latter remains a doubt for Saturday but Guardiola has suggested he could still feature, and we’re tipping the Argentine to be thrown back into the starting XI if he’s deemed fit enough to be involved.
Manchester United boast pretty much a clean bill of health heading into Saturday’s game, the only exceptions being backup goalkeeper Sergio Romero and potentially utility man Daley Blind, who has been far from a prominent figure in Mourinho’s plans this season anyway.
However, bearing in mind how desperate Mourinho will be not to concede the title to United’s closest rivals and his own arch enemy in Guardiola, we’re expecting a change in system from the 4-2-3-1 formation that was used in the 2-0 win over Swansea. England international Jesse Lingard could well be the one sacrificed, with Mourinho reverting to a 4-3-3 that allows him three huge bodies in midfield – Nemanja Matic, Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay.
However, that could well pave the way for another United academy product to feature. Exciting youngster Marcus Rashford has often made an impact in big games for the Red Devils, and Saturday’s is about as big as it gets.