Thursday’s Manchester derby is the most important edition of this fixture for quite a while, with both sides still vying for places in the top four. City head in a place and a point clear of United in the table, though it’s José Mourinho’s men that currently boast the better form. United still haven’t lost a league game since October, and will be confident of maintaining that record against a City side that have often underwhelmed since Pep Guardiola took charge. We’ve identified four key battles that could well determine whether they succeed or not:
United’s centre-back pairing vs. Sergio Agüero
Eric Bailly is United’s only fit first-choice centre-back in the build-up to this match, with Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo all currently on the treatment table. That means Mourinho will likely have to draft Daley Blind into the centre of defence, which is a worry against the threat posed by Sergio Agüero. The Argentine has chipped in with 17 goals so far this season — a tally over twice as big as any of his teammates. He’s capable of creating something from nothing up top, and could cause problems for an oft-immobile Blind.
Marouane Fellaini vs. Kevin De Bruyne
United have further injury woes in midfield, with Paul Pogba certain to miss the game, and Ander Herrera requiring to pass a late fitness test to play. That means we can expect Marouane Fellaini to be handed a start as one of Mourinho’s two deepest-lying midfielders, and probably as the most defensively-oriented one. He’ll thus be the man tasked with denying City’s star playmaker — and his Belgian compatriot — Kevin De Bruyne the space he needs to pull the strings between the lines, which we’ve often seen him do in devastating fashion. It’s going to be a difficult job, but cutting off the supply to Agüero and City’s wingers could prove decisive.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan vs. City’s midfield pivot
It’s probably telling that the first couple of these matchups are defensively minded: City almost certainly head in as favourites. However, attack really is often the best form of defence, and United won’t just be able to sit back and soak up pressure for the entire match. That’s where the creative ingenuity of Henrikh Mkhitaryan will prove crucial, with the Armenian set to go up against a midfield duo of Yaya Touré and Fernandinho. He’ll be tasked with making things click in the final third, and adding a creative flair to an otherwise industrious United attack.
Marcus Rashford vs. City’s centre-back pairing
Marcus Rashford is the youngest ever scorer in the Manchester derby since the Premier League’s inception, having netted the winning goal away at the Etihad in March last year. A year on, the teenager will be hoping to repeat the feat against a defence that scarcely looks any more solid than it did when it contained Martín Demichelis. If Zlatan Ibrahimović’s injury is good for anything, it’s that Rashford will be given an extended run in the first team, and hopefully he’ll be able to prove that he really is ready to spearhead a United team with designs on the Premier League title.