Ready or not — derby day is here. On Sunday, Manchester United make the short trip to the Etihad to take on the Premier League leaders. Both sides enter the match in a rich vein of form, with the Reds fresh off that epic comeback in Turin.
Against Juventus, José Mourinho made two changes from the weekend, bringing both Jesse Lingard and Ander Herrera into the starting eleven. United responded with a much improved performance — holding the Bianconeri scoreless until Cristiano Ronaldo’s second-half stunner.
But, with less than five minutes to play, the Reds broke through for a historic win. Juan Mata equalized with another pinpoint free kick and a Leonardo Bonucci own goal proved the difference. The late barrage of United goals silenced the Allianz Stadium crowd — a fact that Mourinho made sure to rub in afterwards.
Some will call it a smash-and-grab (and there’s some truth to that), but United were well worth the points on Wednesday evening. Other than Ronaldo’s audacious opener, the defense played well and kept Juve mostly in check.
Post-match, Mourinho was understandably pleased: “The game was a very good game, a high-level game. It doesn’t matter the end. The game was really top. I think we performed at a high level. After that goal, we had five minutes to wake up again, but the team was there since the first minute until the last.”
For the derby this weekend, it’s tempting to just run back the same starting eleven that went toe-to-toe with the Italian champs. But some changes may be needed because the Reds ran their socks off in Turin. Manchester City — who played at home against Shakhtar Donetsk — did not have to expend nearly as much energy as United.
Romelu Lukaku remains a question mark after missing the last two matches through injury, although United don’t seem to be missing him much. Alexis Sánchez, leading the line in the Belgian’s absence, made an impact despite going goalless on Wednesday.
Mourinho faces a tough decision on the right wing, where Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard, and Marcus Rashford all bring different skills to the table. With high-scoring City on tap for the weekend, expect the manager to prefer the more hard-working and tactically-disciplined Lingard.
Marouane Fellaini also earned praise for a dogged substitute appearance at Juve. Assuming Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matić keep their spots in midfield, Mourinho will have to choose between Ander Herrera’s mobility and Fellaini’s brute physicality. It’s impossible to imagine the boss trusting Fred to start such an important match.
This season didn’t start the way any Manchester United fan would’ve hoped, but the club are only a few points off the Champions League places — and just nine behind City. Pep Guardiola’s side are on fire at the moment, scoring six goals in back-to-back matches.
Off the pitch, though, dark clouds hang over the Etihad. Over the last week, German magazine Der Spiegel leveled some pretty serious accusations against City’s ownership related to Financial Fair Play abuses. Who knows where the story will go from here, but no club wants this kind of in-season drama. United navigated their own crisis last month when Mourinho reportedly faced the sack — now it looks to be City’s turn to feel the heat.
The Reds get a big boost from Kevin de Bruyne’s absence. City’s star playmaker injured his knee during a Carabao Cup match and will be out of action for up to six weeks. With the Blues locked in a tight battle at the top of the Premier League table, this injury could prove quite costly by the time he returns.
Last season, United staged the comeback of the year at the Etihad. Trailing 2-0 at halftime with City on the verge of clinching the league title, the Reds stormed out of the locker room and shocked their rivals with three second-half goals. Pogba, in particular, showed his world-class best by sparking the revival with a brace shortly after the re-start. Hopefully he’s got another big game in him on Sunday.
After a few great results, Manchester United look to be back on the upswing. The gap to the top four has closed, with the Reds now just four points behind Tottenham. Getting anything from Sunday’s derby would keep United moving in the right direction. Make that a win and this becomes one of the club’s best weeks in quite a long time.