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Preview: Manchester United vs. Manchester City

Read our preview of Sunday’s top of the Premier League table Manchester derby.

Manchester City v Manchester United - Premier League Preview Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

It’s finally here. One of the biggest Manchester derbies in history — red versus blue, #1 versus #2, Mourinho versus Guardiola — comes to a head on Sunday at Old Trafford. No matter how you slice it, this is the kind of match that can define a season.

Coming into the derby, both clubs must feel pretty good about their chances. Manchester City have rampaged through the Premier League so far, dropping only two points in an August draw with Everton, en route to a commanding advantage at the top of the table. Manchester United lead the trailing pack and have played especially well since last month’s international break. In recent weeks, the Red Devils have proven surprisingly effective in a 3-5-2 formation and even managed to get the “big match” monkey off their back with a win at Arsenal.

All of that, though, came with Paul Pogba leading the side — something he cannot do on Sunday. Thanks to his moment of madness at the Emirates, he finds himself suspended for three matches, significantly hampering United’s derby prospects.

The difference in the team with Pogba and without him could not be more stark. When Pogba plays, United score an average of three goals per match. In his absence, that figure drops to a bit more than one goal. With Pogba, United look like legitimate Premier League and Champions League contenders. Without him, much less so. If that £89 million price tag seemed exorbitant last year, Pogba has proven worth his weight in gold this term.

The Pragmatic One might have taken the attack to City with Pogba anchoring midfield, but will now likely favor a more reserved setup. Even so, United must not be content to just sit back, but press the opposition early and often. The key to victory lies in United’s superior physicality, using this to disrupt City’s attack, win the ball, and strike downfield before they can regain their defensive shape.

Although still unbeaten in Premier League play, Manchester City look more vulnerable now than at any other point this season. The lopsided results of September and October have been much tougher to come by recently, with Raheem Sterling twice rescuing full points at the death. In fact, their last four wins all came courtesy of late goals.

Nevertheless, Pep Guardiola’s side have precious few weak points to exploit. One bit of good news came with the shock revelation that David Silva might miss out with an undisclosed injury. Jose Mourinho, though, ain’t buying it.

After seeing Alexandre Lacazette ruled out by Arsenal, only to miraculously recover in time to play a full 90 minutes, the manager has a right to be skeptical. When asked about Silva’s potential absence, Mourinho launched a broadside against his colleagues who stretch the truth regarding injuries, insisting that he prefers to deal in honesty.

“The truth is Eric Bailly [has] no chance for the weekend, Phil Jones a chance, Fellaini a chance, Zlatan a big chance, and Matic is injured but will play for sure. I’m telling the truth, he’s injured but will play for sure.” He twisted the knife in a bit deeper by concluding, “No stories of Lacazette or David Silva. All the truth.”

Whether Silva manages to play or not, the United defense will surely have their hands full with City’s prolific attacking talent. Be it Gabriel Jesus, Kevin De Bruyne, Sergio Aguero, Leroy Sane, or Raheem Sterling, Pep Guardiola can field match-winners anywhere across midfield and the front line.

It will be a tall task, but United enter the derby fresh off a feel-good midweek win over CSKA Moscow. Besides punching the club’s ticket into the Champions League knockout rounds, the victory also provided a confidence boost for some players who needed it most. The struggling Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford both scored goals, hopefully bursting the dam for Sunday. And the forgotten Luke Shaw made his first start of the season, winning man-of-the-match honors to boot.

On the flip side, Manchester City suffered their first defeat of the season on Wednesday against Shakhtar Donetsk. While Guardiola made seven changes for this meaningless Group F finale, no team wants to come into a derby on the back of a loss. Now it’s up to Mourinho’s United to make that two in a row.

A week ago, that scenario seemed far more likely — but the loss of Paul Pogba simply cannot be overstated. Without the dynamic midfielder and facing their toughest competition yet — not to mention the additional emotion of the derby — a draw might be seen as a good result. But if United still have designs on winning the league, three points are all but essential.

While Manchester City probably hold the edge in squad quality, United are not without hope. The club now stands unbeaten in their last 40 matches at Old Trafford and should be well-rested come Sunday. For the second week in a row, the scheduling gods smiled upon Manchester United, giving them one more day of rest than their opponent.

The club’s best chance, though, resides in the tactical nous of its manager. When Jose Mourinho can really zero in on an opponent and craft a plan to beat them, there’s no one better. In the last few weeks, he’s been at his best plotting successful game-plans to beat two of his biggest coaching rivals — Rafa Benitez and Arsene Wenger.

On Sunday, facing Pep Guardiola and Manchester City, Mourinho has the chance to knock off the biggest one of all.