It wasn’t so long ago that English football was in awe of Manchester’s clubs. For a time the city had legitimate claim to being the world’s capital of football, with two powerhouse clubs trading titles for four years. The United-City rivalry has been at the centre of some of the best conclusions to a Premier League season in recent years, yet, as Manchester United prepares to travel across town to face neighbours City on Sunday, the fixture is hardly talk of the town, let alone the nation.
Louis van Gaal’s side is in free fall, with only nine wins in the past 26 games, leaving the Reds to start this weekend’s derby on the back of a another disastrous week. This was always going to be a pivotal seven days – an FA Cup quarter-final against West Ham United, a Europa League tie with Liverpool, and finally the Manchester derby. They were three must win games if Van Gaal wanted to recover anything from the campaign.
Yet, as has so often been the case under Van Gaal, United disappointed. His side faces an FA Cup replay at Upton Park, with even the most optimistic fans drawing an obvious conclusion: Van Gaal’s team is likely to be dumped out.
United’s Europa League tie was already lost after the first leg’s hideous showing at Anfield, although those who turned up at Old Trafford on Thursday expected some fight at least, especially considering the opposition. It was a promise fulfilled, but only for 43 minutes, before suicidal defending condemned United to an exit.
Two winnable competitions; one exit and another likely to come. Did anyone really believe Van Gaal when he claimed there was still a lot worth fighting for this season? Should United lose to City on Sunday it will leave the Reds seven points adrift of Champions League qualification, all but ending the campaign before Easter. After an outlay of a quarter of a billion pounds, few believe that is good enough.
With United’s hierarchy seemingly unwilling to put Van Gaal out of his misery until the season concludes, supporters must suffer until May at best. Indeed, Van Gaal’s now frequently delusional assessment was on show once again on Thursday night, after the Dutchman claimed that fans were “proud of their team” due to muted applause at the final whistle. Somewhere in London, José Mourinho allowed himself a wry smile knowing that he is increasingly likely to land his dream job in June.
For all of United’s slide this season, the ‘noisy neighbours’ at City cannot claim to be better. The Blues progressed to the last eight of the Champions League for the first time in the club’s history this week, and have won the League Cup this season. Yet, critics can point to a level of under-achievement under manager Manuel Pellegrini, with City still fighting to make the top four.
The stats seem to back up the assessment, with City having spent more money than United only to achieve similarly inconsistent results. Since winning the League Cup Pellegrini’s side has reverted to the pattern of mixed form that has been typical of the Chilean’s reign. City’s comprehensive, if predictably routine, 4-0 win against Aston Villa a fortnight ago was sandwiched between a heavy defeat to Liverpool, and a disappointing scoreless draw with a poor Norwich City side.
City’s draw against Dynamo Kiev in midweek ensured qualification for the Champions League quarter-final, although it is still difficult to argue with the notion that City has under-performed in Europe given Abu Dhabi’s investment over the past eight years. After drawing a strong PSG side in the last eight the end of the road for another campaign may be close.
The Manchester derby is not critical in the title run in, yet it still carries a significance. Pellegrini’s side is out of the title race, trailing Leicester by 15 points with a game in hand. Yet, while the Blues should at least be in a comfortable position inside the top four, the team is just four points ahead of a shambolic United team. Should United win, the Reds will close the gap to one point with seven games remaining; a loss is the end of the road for Van Gaal.
With inconsistency on Pellegrini’s mind the Chilean refused to be drawn on the Manchester clubs’ poor form ahead of the 171st derby, instead focusing on City’s unlikely, if mathematically possible, title challenge.
“A derby is always dangerous, it does not matter what position the teams are in,” Pellegrini said. “In football when you have a mathematical chance, you cannot think you cannot do it. That is not the winning mind, you must always think you can do it”.
It is an optimistic assessment, although with Pep Guardiola’s arrival at Eastlands fast approaching, Pellegrini is desperate to leave a legacy.
Meanwhile, Van Gaal remains typically arrogant, refusing to accept criticism and choosing to proclaim in the aftermath of defeat to Liverpool that his team is on track in a “three-year process.” Indeed, the Dutchman is at pains to remind fans that his team remains in two competitions. Defeat on Sunday should bring an end to that notion.
“We are now four points behind, we have to win otherwise the gap gets bigger and bigger,” the Dutchman said. “If we lose then it is seven points and we have to play eight matches which is very sharp to recover from. It would still be possible, but very difficult”.
Yet, Van Gaal was also quick to play down fans’ expectations ahead of the derby, pointing to United’s lack of rest between Thursday night’s finish and Sunday’s kick-off. Another ready-made excuse.
“When you play the Liverpool match, so close to City, you have to wait and see which players are available and then that will impact on my game plan because some players may make me alter my style. It is not so easy being a manager”.
It is not so easy watching his team, some fans might add. Few will bet on it being any easier come six o’clock on Sunday evening.
City subs from: Caballero, Clichy, Otamendi, Sagna, M García, Maffeo, Adarabioyo, Bony, Iheanacho
United subs from: Romero, Darmian, McNair, Fosu-Mensah, Borthwick-Jackson, Januzaj, Weir, Pereira, Schweinsteiger, Carrick, Rashford
Derby day should offer all the incentive Van Gaal’s players need to beat City this weekend. Champions League qualification is still possible, although realistically the Reds must win on Sunday to stand any chance of achieving it.
Injuries dominate both managers’ team selection. Antonio Valencia made his return from injury on Thursday night after coming on in the second half for Guillermo Varela. Varela was at fault for Liverpool’s goal, and Van Gaal is likely to drop the youngster despite a series of otherwise promising performances at right-back.
In the centre Daley Blind could sit out the fixture after playing more games than any other United player this term. The Dutchman looked exhausted on Thursday night and had given up tracking his opponents with 20 minutes remaining. The inconsistent Marcos Rojo could partner Chris Smalling, with Matteo Darmian coming in at left-back.
In midfield, Marouane Fellaini was once again lucky to escape a red card after the Belgian aimed another elbow at Emre Can on Thursday night. Van Gaal’s trust in the midfielder continues to frustrate supporters, with many now hoping that Mourinho will bring to an end the Fellaini experiment.
Morgan Schneiderlin could return at the expense of Michael Carrick, who was poor again on Thursday. The veteran’s time at United is running down – out of contract in the summer, age appears to have caught up with the midfielder. Still, in Schneiderlin United boasts a player who genuinely loves to break up play. The stats back up the assessment, with United having lost only seven per cent of the team’s games when the Frenchman starts, compared to 67 per cent without him.
Bastian Schweinsteiger could replace pantomime villain Fellaini in Van Gaal’s side. The German captain has disappointed since his arrival last summer, although his leadership and calming influence has been missed over the past month.
Further forward Van Gaal inexplicably swapped Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard’s positions on Thursday, with little positive effect. Lingard demonstrated none of the intelligence required to play at number 10; much in the same fashion that Mata offers none of the pace to succeed on the wing.
On the left, Memphis could make a return to Van Gaal’s team after being dropped against Liverpool – his inclusion would allow Anthony Martial be deployed up front in the knowledge that the Frenchman’s pace will tourble a calamitous City centre-back pairing of Eliaquim Mangala and Martin Demichelis.
Referee: Michael Oliver
Assistants: J Brooks, G Beswick
Fourth Official: A Marriner
City 2-1 United