For years, this fixture passed reasonably inconspicuously past the calendar of any Manchester United fan. After all, what would a club competing for the league with Arsenal, Chelsea, and Liverpool have to worry about a fixture against their less fortunate neighbors across town? The man who kept United head and shoulders above the rest has moved on from football, and without him, the game has moved on.
The fixture against Manchester City spells fidgeting and unease among the United fan base these days. City seem to embody what a super club should be, from recruitment to their academy to the top class football they play. United look desperate to try and clamber back on top, spending heavily. So far they have looked more like a gambler trying to recuperate his losses than a big team investing smartly.
Their managers seem to embody this: one a super coach looking as hungry as ever, the other past the peak of their powers. But so much for the current state of affairs. When the biggest club in England and the current best one meet, form goes out the window. After all, this is Derby Day.
United fans have seen false dawns aplenty under Jose Mourinho. A Europa league in his first season seemed to herald the return of the good times. However, a blistering start to last season petered away and United have very much been stop-start since then. There is, however, a cautious air of optimism this time. United have slowly and steadily made progress over the last month or so.
From a time when it seemed Jose Mourinho was all but doomed, United have responded with wins against Newcastle, a heroic effort at Stamford Bridge, wins against Everton and Bournemouth and an incredible smash and grab a victory against Juventus in Turin. Over that time, United fans have gradually seen their team play flashes of the football they want to see. Their team has loved going goals down and finding a way to pull a result out the bag. The desire to fight for the badge is there and an ‘us against the world’ mentality seems to have grown.
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There are some worries, however. United have been woeful in the first halves of games. While that kept them in touching distance in recent fixtures, it could result in a cricket scoreline against City. A fluidity seems to have formed in the absence of target man Romelu Lukaku up top. While Anthony Martial is nailed for the left-hand slot, it will be interesting to see whom Mourinho favors out of Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez up top; with the Belgian returning to training.
United have shown much better fluidity and cohesion with Alexis up top in recent weeks. While Mourinho is a big fan of Lukaku’s team ethic and graft, Alexis could form a good foil for United’s out-balls, with his control and ability to turn in tight spaces. Jesse Lingard is likely to play as well, with his work off the ball being crucial to Mourinho’s tactics. Mourinho likes two sitting players in these games and while Nemanja Matic has looked increasingly off the boil, it is hard to see his exclusion.
There were some concerning reports last night stating that Paul Pogba had suffered an injury scare ahead of the Manchester derby. The Times reported that the French World Cup winner suffered a minor injury in the 2-1 win over Juventus on Wednesday. This could mean that Matic, Herrera and Fred could all have starting roles if Pogba does indeed miss the match through injury. Marouane Fellaini would be the likely option in the event of United having to see the game out or force a way back in.
Victor Lindelof and Chris Smalling have a herculean task ahead of them, as do Luke Shaw and Ashley Young. The match against Juventus was the perfect warm-up for such a game, but United’s rearguard is so porous it seems almost inevitable City will pierce it at some point. Paul Pogba lit this fixture ablaze last year, and every United fan will be praying for his speedy recovery.
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If Mourinho avoids defeat in this game, it would represent a huge turn around in fortunes for the United faithful. Whatever unfolds, United seem to have a fighting spirit alive and well. Manchester City are going to play exquisite football for large portions of this game. And there is likely to be a spectacular save or two from David De Gea. But this United team and their manager seem to be happy to ride the storm and strike when it seems least likely. It would be laughable to deny City are firm favorites for this fixture, but it’d be foolish to write United off. It seems engraved in the DNA of the club to serve up late drama. If the same happens on Sunday, United could still have a lot to say in the Premier League’s very young title race.
Predicted Manchester United Lineup – David De Gea, Ashley Young (c), Chris Smalling, Victor Lindelof, Luke Shaw, Herrera, Matic, Pogba, Lingard, Sanchez, Martial
Feature Image via Red Devil Armada
Pogba Image via The Times
Part 1 | City Firm Favourites |