Saturday marks the 176th Manchester Derby. A fierce rivalry between managers that began in Spain and has now traveled to England, Pep Guardiola’s Citizens and José Mourinho’s Red Devils early evening fixture results will have Manchester buzzing no matter the outcome. If the match ends in Manchester City’s favor, this will be their second domestic title in four years. Should Manchester United defeat their crosstown rivals, Mourinho’s men not only salvage their dignity, but also silence City fans who gleefully expect to paint Manchester blue twice this year.
As a supporter of the most triumphant football club in England, I get it. After suffering their fair share of misery at the expense of United for the better part of 30 years, winning the Premier League in front of traveling United fans, Mourinho, and his team may soon become a reality for City. As I previously mentioned, however, United is the most successful football club in England. If he has anything to say about it, José Mourinho will do his best to delay the celebrations to another weekend; one where he won’t be front and center watching Guardiola lift the trophy most expected him to hoist.
Following their 3-1 victory against Everton last weekend, Guardiola mentioned in his post-match interview that he intended to focus his team’s attention on Wednesday afternoon’s Champions League quarterfinal leg against Liverpool. Desperate to make the semifinals, the Spaniard warned fans not to express discontent if he weren’t completely invested in a potential title winning match the following Saturday.
Spoiler alert: Liverpool knows how to beat City.
Just twelve minutes into the match, the Premier League’s leading scorer Mo Salah opened the scoring at Anfield, and from that point on City looked visibly shaken and confused as to how to bring themselves level. With a three-goal deficit heading into the second leg, City’s semifinals hopes just became a complete pipe dream.
City’s humiliating loss benefits United. Fresh off a 2-0 win against Swansea City that included Alexis Sánchez nabbing his second goal in a United kit, Mourinho’s men enter Saturday’s match perhaps more confident than their first meeting last December. Midfielder Paul Pogba won’t be watching his teammates perform from the stands and defender Eric Bailly is in form to play the full 90 minutes. Despite a roller coaster of questionable play from the Red Devils, one thing remains clear: outrun and outplay City at all costs.
Following December’s derby loss at Old Trafford, Mourinho was chastised for playing a two-man midfield that City painfully exposed, as the gap in the center led to several counterattacks and missed opportunities for offensive pressure from hosts. Pogba’s red card suspension the week before that derby coupled with injury woes in the middle serve as justifiable logic for the absence of another mid. With Scott McTominay gaining experience week by week with the first team, the addition of a third body along with the Frenchman and Nemanja Matić could see United with an offensive advantage against a bested City defense.
Even though the semifinals look all but secured in the Red Pretenders favor, this is Liverpool. Yes, they’re playing some of their best football this year and Jürgen Klopp has Salah to thank for keeping United looking over their shoulders for the second place spot in domestic standings. We’re still talking about Liverpool here. Prior to the January signing of centre back Virgil van Dijk, Liverpool’s defense was a constant topic of conversation. His arrival has significantly improved the structure and pace in the back; however with Joël Matip’s season ending thigh sprain and Adam Lallana sitting comfortably on the injury list for “a number of weeks,” City can enter Saturday’s match knowing they don’t have to win and instead do just enough for the much anticipated derby to meet expectations.
A win against City has the potential to set United up for their title-winning season next year. Each week we inch closer and closer to an expensive and significant summer transfer period, and a well-deserved win against our neighbors is an attractive sell for José Mourinho’s targets. The title race has been all but over for some time, and an FA Cup win won’t be enough to lure the likes of Paulo Dybala, Antoine Griezmann or Gareth Bale to Old Trafford. In order to maintain the idea that these targets need Manchester United more than Manchester United need them, a win at Etihad Stadium on Saturday is nothing short of necessary.