“It is going to be the game of the season,” Ander Herrera said at the weekend of a match that pitches fourth in the Premier League against fifth.
When Manchester City and Manchester United first met this season on Sept. 10, it was a battle between two teams expected to challenge for the title. The months since have seen targets redrawn, with Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho both serving as bystanders to Tottenham’s chase of Chelsea.
Although Mourinho has banked the EFL Cup and United remain in the Europa League, Guardiola’s chance of silverware was lost when Arsenal prevailed 2-1 in Sunday’s FA Cup semifinal. Losing to United and dropping into fifth place would be another puncture to the reputation of the manager City waited four years to recruit, their dream ticket to becoming an elite European club.
How do the two teams measure up for Thursday night?
Guardiola has never weaned himself off save-shy Claudio Bravo, whose City debut came in that September visit to Old Trafford and whose shaky performance served as a prelude to the crisis of confidence that followed. Bravo has been making some big saves in recent weeks, but he is bound to be targeted by Mourinho, just as he has been by all opponents.
Could this David De Gea’s final Manchester derby? Rumours of his exit grow stronger, with local media reporting that his luxury Cheshire mansion is on the market. Should Real Madrid finally get their man, they will do so after De Gea’s least distinguished season since his debut campaign in 2011-12, though his presence in the PFA Team of the Year suggests that his fellow professionals still hold him in high regard.
Sunday’s Wembley defeat was the latest exposure of a City defence that is poorly protected by its midfield screen, while Guardiola’s fielding of Jesus Navas at right-back continues to be mystifying. Vincent Kompany’s long-overdue return to defence is welcome as a former derby day hero. He headed the winner in the 1-0 victory key to City’s title win when the teams met five years at the Etihad, but his faltering, fragile fitness will be put to the test by Marcus Rashford.
Jose Mourinho has asked Phil Jones and Chris Smalling to come to United’s rescue as injuries pile up. Eric Bailly and Daley Blind are last men standing in central defence, though Mourinho has options at fullback with Luke Shaw available, though whether he yet trusts a player he has publicly criticised is of some doubt. Antonio Valencia’s absence from Sunday’s 2-0 win at Burnley was probably made with Leroy Sane’s speed and skill in mind. A defensive performance such as April 16’s 2-0 defeat of Chelsea might be required.
News of David Silva’s fitness is keenly awaited by City staff and fans. At Wembley, City stagnated as soon as a knee injury forced him out of the FA Cup semifinal. Guardiola’s team just don’t sing as sweetly without Silva around: Witness his supreme creativity at Old Trafford, cutting United to ribbons as City stormed into a 2-1 lead. Fernandinho and Yaya Toure toiled against Arsenal as Sunday’s game went to extra-time; their energy levels might be in doubt.
Paul Pogba has been ruled out by his manager after he limped from the field at Burnley. Barring some Mourinho mind games, that will effect a significant rearrangement of a unit that had at last begun to perform with some consistency and shined in picking off Chelsea. Might Herrera be asked to perform another man-marking role, something he did so well against Eden Hazard last week? The prime candidate for such a detail is Silva, though that might leave Kevin de Bruyne in too much space for comfort. Meanwhile, Pogba’s absence would seem to confirm that Marouane Fellaini’s battering-ram skills will be deployed against City defence.
The 99th-minute substitution of Aguero at Wembley (for Fabian Delph, of all players) looked like a decision made with Thursday’s derby in mind, even though it robbed City of a chance to take the semifinal to a penalty shootout. Aguero has been in incendiary form this season: His strike on Sunday took him to 30 goals on the season and made him the club’s joint-second-highest scorer ever. He also has a fine strike rate against United, with seven in nine appearances. Sane will likely be the closest player to the Argentina international, though Guardiola has hinted that Gabriel Jesus, fit again at last, might start alongside Aguero. That would signal intent to put United firmly on the back foot.
United will be without the two players who have scored against City this season: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who scored in United’s 2-1 home loss, has suffered a career-threatening cruciate rupture, while Juan Mata, who scored the winner in October’s 1-0 EFL Cup home win, is missing after groin surgery. The onus is placed on Rashford, the goal scorer in last March’s 1-0 win at City. He was kept back for this fixture when being rested at Burnley, where the lesser-spotted Wayne Rooney scored United’s second. It seems unlikely that Rooney will start, but the fixture’s record goal scorer with 11 could fancy himself from the bench.
Guardiola’s reputation as the world’s best coach has taken a serious hit during his first season in English football. To be beaten at Wembley by Arsene Wenger, widely depicted as an out-of-touch tactician, was an embarrassment. City’s manager now faces down another Premier League old master and someone he has usually got the better of in the past; that said, Guardiola had better teams to hand before now.
There is light at the end of the tunnel for Mourinho following a season of groans and gripes. The loss of key lieutenant Ibrahimovic is a blow, but with the Swede sidelined, Rashford was the key man in that Chelsea victory. That was an afternoon when Mourinho, against the expectation of his many critics, showed that he still had it within him to pull off a tactical triumph. Another one will be required at the Etihad, and Mourinho has no doubt been planning and plotting.
The record between the two superstar managers over 18 meetings is eight wins for Guardiola, four for Mourinho and six draws.
Even though the Europa League is a safety net for United in terms of their ability to qualify for next season’s Champions League, the idea of damaging their rival and neighbours must appeal. Should United fail at City’s ground, they can focus on Celta Vigo in the semifinals, such that Thursday is make-or-break for Premier League ambitions. United have less to lose than their rivals.
Both teams are patched up after long, punishing campaigns that have brought multiple doses of reality. The damage to Guardiola’s standing if City fail to qualify for the Champions League would take some repairing, considering the “sky’s the limit” expectations he arrived with. This might be the last chance to allay such doubts, to recast this season as one of development rather than disappointment.
Score prediction: United win 2-1