On Saturday, Manchester United make the short crosstown trek to the Etihad for one of the stranger derbies in recent memory. If the Reds lose, they face the depressing prospect of watching their hated rivals celebrate the Premier League title right in front of them. But, because of Manchester City’s Champions League quarterfinal on Wednesday (and the second leg next week), Pep Guardiola might field a weakened side.
Whether on Saturday or in the weeks to come, City will win the 2017/18 Premier League. They hold an insurmountable 16 point lead atop the table — with a staggering +67 GD to boot. The Blues have been superb from start to finish, at least when playing anyone but Liverpool. Even so, United can at least spare themselves the indignity of a front row seat for City’s coronation.
Back in December’s derby at Old Trafford, the visitors topped short-handed United 2-1. David Silva struck first for City, but Marcus Rashford equalized seconds before the break. Parity did not last long, though, as Nicolas Otamendi put the Blues ahead for good in the 54th minute. It was a disappointing result that effectively ended United’s title challenge before Christmas.
Everyone expected Guardiola’s side to dominate possession and for the Reds to sit back and try to hit them on the counter. That’s exactly what happened, but United looked surprisingly comfortable dealing with City’s vaunted attack.
Infuriatingly, both goals came from set pieces. What should be a strength of a team set up in a conservative defensive style instead proved their undoing. For both City goals, United squandered the chance to get organized and marshal their defense.
If City cut open your defense through quick passing or a moment of magic from their world-class attacking talent, that’s one thing. But to cope well with their possession football and then throw it away with mental errors on set pieces is something else altogether. No doubt this will be a point of emphasis from José Mourinho in training this week.
Saturday’s United side will be much different from the one Mourinho named in December. Before the first derby, Paul Pogba picked up a silly red card against Arsenal and missed out through suspension. Add in Alexis Sánchez (who looked City-bound for months) and the emergence of Scott McTominay and United look far stronger now.
After a slow start in a red shirt, Sánchez finally arrived last weekend against Swansea. That man of the match performance (scoring a goal and assisting on the opener) shows how dangerous this United side can be with an in-form Sánchez.
The Swansea match also proved momentous for Romelu Lukaku. His mid-season slump is now well in the past as the Belgian has scored in four of the last six league matches. With his 5th minute strike against the Swans, Lukaku joined the Premier League's 100 Goal club. Hopefully he can get started on his second century this weekend.
Overall, Manchester United couldn’t ask for better circumstances for this derby. The Reds are relatively healthy, fresh off a comfortable win (and clean sheet) against Swansea, and now face rivals trying to juggle three important matches in one week.
After Wednesday’s shocking 3-0 loss at Anfield, Guardiola has little choice but to rotate his squad this weekend. The Catalan manager’s remit at the Etihad is to win the Champions League above all else and now must throw caution to the wind in next week’s second leg. It’s hard to imagine City asking their stars to play three high-intensity matches in the space of seven days.
Everyone knows about City’s embarrassment of attacking riches — Gabriel Jesus, Leroy Sane, Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, etc. — but how many of these big-names will actually play on Saturday?
Guardiola didn't tip his hand in the post-Liverpool presser. “It is what it is,” City’s boss said. “We have to accept it. Now, in two days, we have United at home. Then, two days after, we have Liverpool. We’ll see what happens.”
Winning the Premier League at United’s (and Mourinho’s) expense surely appeals to Guardiola and company, but don’t expect him to risk City’s chances of a second leg miracle just to rub salt in his rivals’ wounds.
The Manchester derby undoubtedly represents United’s toughest game left on the schedule — and the most meaningful. While a win here would be huge in the race for second place, this one really comes down to pride. City may be shoo-ins for the Premier League title, but United can exact a small bit of satisfaction by getting a result at the Etihad. Let’s keep the noisy neighbors quiet for at least one more week.