Manchester derby: It all comes down to this

A win for United would see them leapfrog their rivals into a Champions League spot

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho has an opportunity to score a seismic victory over his old foe Pep Guardiola when his side visit misfiring Manchester City on Thursday. Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho has an opportunity to score a seismic victory over his old foe Pep Guardiola when his side visit misfiring Manchester City on Thursday. Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

 

The race is not always to the swift, according to Ecclesiastes, although as Damon Runyon and thousands of others subsequently pointed out, that is never the way to bet.

Picking the winners and losers in this season’s title and top-four race has been an unusually fraught business, mainly because Chelsea dropped so far out of the running last time out.

While it was not hard to predict that they would improve on 10th place this season, having begun the process before the end of the last one, runaway leaders for most of the campaign would have been a bold prediction to make in August.

Back then it appeared Manchester City would be setting the pace, which they did for a short while after winning their first six matches to get off to a storming start. Even Liverpool, who beat Arsenal, Chelsea and Leicester in the first month and drew at Tottenham Hotspur, were struggling to stay in touch, though they briefly climbed to the top of the table in October and spent the next couple of months in second or third place.

In the first meeting of the side’s this season Manchester City prevailed at Old Trafford. Photo: Getty Images
In the first meeting of the side’s this season Manchester City prevailed at Old Trafford. Photo: Getty Images

Both Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola would have been quite reasonably aspiring to be in the title mix until Chelsea went on the 13-match winning run that put them firmly on top in the new year, though even then both Liverpool and Manchester City seemed set fair for a top-four finish.

It could be argued they still are, sitting as they do in third and fourth place respectively, but the picture has altered subtly in the last week or so.

Liverpool’s home defeat by Crystal Palace – it seems a long time now since Klopp was setting his sights on winning every game until the end of the season – has left the German’s side vulnerable. Liverpool are third only by virtue of having played two games more than the teams below them and they could now be overtaken by both Manchester clubs depending on what happens in Thursday’s derby.

City would go third with a win, though that is probably the result Liverpool will be hoping for as it would make it much more difficult for Manchester United to crack the top four. A win would be a sensational result for United, without necessarily spelling the end of City’s challenge, yet Guardiola in particular can scarcely afford to follow Saturday’s Wembley disappointment with derby defeat at the Etihad. The ignominy would be unbearable for a club that very publicly set their sights much higher and, while Guardiola deserves more than a season to prove himself, he would be under pressure as never before should the possibility of City finishing outside the top four raise its head.

A draw would suit both Manchester clubs, even if it would be regarded with suspicion on Merseyside. Such a result would still leave United’s destiny in their own hands, they could still finish higher than Liverpool without Klopp and his players being able to do much about it, and it would preserve the remarkable unbeaten sequence that José Mourinho has quietly managed to supervise.

The words quiet and Mourinho are not frequently seen in the same sentence but, partly due to the high number of draws and the fact that United have taken up semi-permanent residence just outside the top four, an unbeaten run of 23 Premier League games has perhaps not received the credit it deserves.

United have been the tortoise in the race all season, though there are now signs that at least a couple of the top-four hares are tiring and all Mourinho’s team need do is keep inching along.

Liverpool are no longer scoring goals for fun and their defensive problems are starting to find them out quite regularly. Klopp was saying a month or so ago that it might be a good idea for both managers to attend post-match press conferences together, as has been known to happen in Germany, so that if one makes a contentious statement the other has an immediate chance to counter it. This arrangement would have been quite uncomfortable on Sunday for the German, one feels, had he been sitting next to Sam Allardyce as the Crystal Palace manager went into detail about the best way to beat Liverpool. There is little doubt Allardyce would not have been shy in such a situation and Liverpool supporters would have been interested, to say the least, to hear what Klopp had to say in his defence.

Marcus Rashford sliced through City in the fixture at the Etihad last year. Photo: Getty Images
Marcus Rashford sliced through City in the fixture at the Etihad last year. Photo: Getty Images

Guardiola’s response to losing to Arsenal at Wembley was to reiterate that City would come back stronger next year. They might, of course, but it would be silly to imagine that Chelsea, Tottenham, United and the rest are not thinking the same thing. Anyone can spend money but the point about Guardiola was supposed to be that he can introduce a new and successful way of playing.

Almost a year in, the signs are not auspicious. City’s main idea at Wembley seemed to be to turn the ball back to Yaya Touré all the time to see what he could come up with, which is very much the old way of playing. While Guardiola may have been unlucky to lose Gabriel Jesus, John Stones and Ilkay Gündogan to injury, plus David Silva on the day, the fact still remains that Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sané did not make the anticipated impression and City once again let a lead slip without making any attempt to try to protect it.

United, it ought to be conceded, are not in great shape either. They have lost their top goalscorer, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, for the rest of the season and have problems at centre-half. But – insert drum roll here – they must be able to smell an opportunity that a few months ago seemed unlikely to present itself. Had the Manchester derby taken place on its original date at the end of February, City would have been strong favourites. They were playing at home, they would just have scored five goals against Monaco to boost their Champions League hopes, they were second in the table and knew they had outplayed United at Old Trafford. Confidence would have been high but the derby was postponed through United’s involvement in the EFL Cup final and the intervening couple of months have not been kind to Guardiola and his players.

Mourinho is now the one with the unbeaten run and a trophy on his sideboard in his first season in Manchester, while Guardiola cannot win anything. Though losing Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a blow, United seem to have Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford finding form at the right time.

City are coming into the game on the back of a jarring defeat; United have some momentum. Who should be the most confident now? Anything can happen in derbies, as both sides know only too well, but United have a manager who seems to be able to work out a plan to win any given game.

Not in the sense of one game after another but, if there is a single game that must be negotiated, a result to be obtained, Mourinho’s track record of coming up with a plan is excellent. He famously did it against Guardiola’s Barcelona when Internazionale were down to 10 men in the Champions League semi-finals in 2010. He did it just a couple of weeks ago in England when United prevailed against barely recognisable league leaders.

Mourinho, for about a million reasons, would dearly love to cross town and make life even more miserable for Guardiola. United and their supporters would probably enjoy that even more than reaching the Europa League final. Never mind that London is set to claim the major prizes, in Manchester the crux of the season has arrived.

Two clubs, two managers, two long and eventful campaigns, all boiled down to one game. Mourinho keeps dutifully bigging up the Europa League as a potential trophy, even though he dislikes Thursday night football and has said so. He might find he is not quite so averse to the Premier League version. As Thursday nights go, this could be the one to remember.

(Guardian service)

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