Man U vs. Man City
Venue: Old Trafford
Kick off: 5:30PM
Local rivals Manchester United and Manchester City will meet for the fourth time in the space of three months this afternoon when the Red Devils welcome the reigning champions to Old Trafford.
United currently boast the bragging rights for the season with two wins to one, but they sit 15 points behind today’s visitors in the Premier League table and know that anything other than a victory could harm their hopes of qualifying for next season’s Champions League.
The 182nd edition of this derby may not carry as much weight as many of the recent meetings when it comes to the destination of the Premier League title, but it still promises to be a significant one for United in particular.
The race for Champions League football next season continues to be hotly contested with only three points separating four teams between fifth and eighth, while Burnley, Arsenal and Everton cannot be counted out just yet either.
Man City’s European ban could be cause for double celebration as far as United is concerned if they do end up finishing fifth – the position they currently occupy – with that enough to earn a seat at Europe’s top table as things stand.
However, the Red Devils will need to hold off stiff competition from Wolverhampton Wanderers, Tottenham Hotspur and Sheffield United, the latter of whom arguably hold the advantage at this stage given their game in hand over the teams above them in the table.
Man City’s appeal against the ban does mean that a question mark remains over whether fifth place will be enough, though, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will no doubt be urging his side to exploit Chelsea’s inconsistency and bridge the three-point gap to the top four over the final 10 games of the season.
United is certainly going into the business end of the campaign in good form; Thursday’s FA Cup cruise at Wayne Rooney’s Derby County booked their place in the quarter-finals and made it nine games unbeaten across all competitions, during which time they have kept seven clean sheets and conceded only two goals.
Solskjaer will justifiably argue that they should have only conceded one goal considering David de Gea’s gift to Dominic Calvert-Lewin in the 1-1 draw with Everton last time out, although a contentious VAR call then denied the Toffees a late winner at Goodison Park to keep United’s unbeaten streak intact.
The 20-time champions will be looking to get back to winning ways in a double-header which sees them face Man City and fellow Champions League hopefuls Tottenham Hotspur in their next two top-flight games, while a Europa League trip to LASK Linz is sandwiched between those two matches.
It is a relatively kind run-in for United after that, though, with Sheffield United and Leicester City the only teams currently in the top half that they will have to face in their final eight games of the campaign.
A positive result against City today would be a bonus to some extent, then, although Solskjaer has already got the better of Pep Guardiola in two of their three meetings this season, both of which came at the Etihad Stadium.
However, City’s record at Old Trafford has been superb in recent years, while their most recent defeat to United was made irrelevant by the first-leg victory in that EFL Cup semi-final as they booked their place at Wembley courtesy of a 3-2 aggregate triumph.
Guardiola’s side went on to continue their dominance of domestic cup competitions by beating Aston Villa in last weekend’s final, claiming a third successive EFL Cup crown, while they sealed their place in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup by edging past Sheffield Wednesday in midweek.
Throw their memorable victory away to Real Madrid into the mix and this is Man City’s first taste of Premier League action since scraping past Leicester on February 22 – a result which secured successive top-flight clean sheets for only the second time this season.
Plenty has changed since then – in addition to collecting another trophy and winning at the Bernabeu, they have also seen Liverpool lose in the league for the first time this season, although they remain 22 points adrift of Jurgen Klopp’s side and that deficit could grow to 25 when the Reds face Bournemouth on Saturday lunchtime.
Liverpool’s defeat was of more significance to City in that it means the Reds could now win the title at the Etihad Stadium on April 5 if both teams keep on winning, although Guardiola’s side face some tough challenges between then and now with United, Arsenal, Burnley, Real Madrid and an FA Cup tie against Newcastle United still to come in March.
The priority for the remainder of the campaign will still be adding the Champions League to their trophy cabinet, but Guardiola is a serial winner and this is a team built in his mould so they will very much have their sights set on a League Cup, FA Cup and Champions League treble now.
The champions will not wave the white flag in the Premier League either with the outcome of their European ban still to be decided, and victory on Sunday would see them build an 18-point lead over United to close in on confirmation of a top-four spot.
City make the short trip to Old Trafford looking to win six consecutive games across all competitions for the first time this season, while they could also keep three Premier League clean sheets in a row for the first time in 2019-20.
The magnitude of the match – and perhaps the desire to prevent United from being the team to capitalise on their European ban – should be enough to ensure that the players’ minds remain focused on domestic matters rather than the looming visit of Madrid later this month.
However, Guardiola could still consider changes to his team following the announcement that their league game against Arsenal – postponed due to the EFL Cup final – will now take place at short notice on Wednesday evening.
Man U possible XI: De Gea, Wan-Bissaka, Lindelof, Maguire, Shaw, Matic, Fred, James, Fernandes, Martial, Ighalo.
Man City possible XI: Ederson, Walker, Otamendi, Fernandinho, Mendy, De Bruyne, Rodri, Gundogan, Mahrez, Aguero, Sterling.