This has not been a kind fixture for Manchester United fans of late. After all, the Blues from east of the city have come to dominate, with Abu Dhabi’s riches underpinning four victories in a row and six in the past 10 league matches between these sides. It is a record that few United supporters can stomach, let alone a manager who oversaw defeat at Eastlands earlier this season. Little wonder Louis van Gaal “dreams” of derby victory on Sunday – a win that would give United a four point Premier League margin over the Blues with the clock ticking down on the race for European football.
Indeed, City’s dominance of late – extending to a second Premier League title in three years last May – renders all the more stark the contrasting fortunes in the teams’ form over the past two months. United, emboldened by five Premier League victories in a row, start Sunday’s Old Trafford match as favourites; a rare position in recent years.
City, by contrast, has suffered four league defeats in the past 10; a run of form that almost certainly means a trophyless season and Manuel Pellegrini’s summer dismissal. Such is the way in east Manchester, where the thirst for success is driven by more than £1 billion ploughed into the club by Sheihk Mansour’s family over the past seven years.
Van Gaal, meanwhile, has overcome a poor early season start and a major injury crisis to stamp his mark on this side. For so much of the campaign United has been one of the Premier League’s less inspiring sides – at least of those in the top half. No longer, with the Dutchman’s team enjoying vibrant attacking performances in victory over Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa in the past month. It is a run of form that has supporters thinking of topping the Blues come May, let alone Sunday.
“I dream of it,” said the veteran coach. “Every player shall dream of victory. I have been thinking with my staff and my players already for many days about how we have to beat Manchester City. You are always in that process of how to beat your next opponent.
“You want to win because it is a big step in the table. When you win, third place is reachable and months ago nobody was thinking we could do it. Third position in the table is also good because you have certainly qualified for the Champions League and we would do better than the goal we set in pre-season.”
It is dream shared by United fans too long usurped by City’s new-found dominance. The Blues have not only won four of these fixtures on the bounce, but by an aggregate score of 10 goals to United’s two. For a club of United’s standing it is not an edifying record.
“When you are walking the streets of Manchester everybody is talking about the derby and also the players,” added Van Gaal. “They understand the meaning of a Manchester United victory over Manchester City. They know and I know it, so it’s very important. I don’t have time to visit the city so much. But when I’m there, the fans are talking about the derby. In football you play for the fans and I hope we can give our fans the victory.”
United’s standing as favourites is based on strong form over the past two months and a clean bill of squad health, save for Robin van Persie’s ongoing ankle injury. That problem will keep the Dutchman out of Sunday’s fixture, while Luke Shaw is not yet fit enough to return. Johnny Evans serves the fifth of a six-match suspension, but Chris Smalling should be available. It would be a chance, perhaps, for the Englishman to redeem the bone-headed red card received in the fixture at the Etihad Stadium earlier this season.
Elsewhere, the manager is likely to field a similar side to the one that secured victory against Villa last weekend, with Daley Blind again deputising at left-back, with Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Marouanne Fellani and Michael Carrick deployed as an in-form midfield quintet.
Meanwhile, Van Gaal offered no guarantees that Angel di Maria will return despite A positive substitute performance against Villa. The Argentinian may yet be recalled at Ashley Young’s expense, although the Englishman’s good form this season suggests otherwise. Still, it is this competition for places that is driving higher standards, claims the Dutchman.
“Not only Angel Di Maria, but every player who is training in the first squad are pushing because they want to do their utmost. I played 11 against 11 today and the team in white was very good. The white team was not the basic line-up, so they are pushing always and I like that. I said that to all of the players, that I like the fighting spirit of every one of them.”
Meanwhile, Pellegrini faces anything but certainty. Dumped out of the Champions League, with recent defeats against Crystal Palace and Burnley effectively ending the Blues’ title defence, City’s campaign has imploded during February and March. Another European failure compounding domestic complacency it would appear.
On the pitch Pellegrini may be without captain Vincent Kompany, who suffered a hamstring injury against Palace on Monday. The Belgian will face a late fitness test before a final selection is decision is made on the out-of-form defender. Pellegrini may also drop Eden Dzeko, with the Bosnian having scored just four goals this season – two coming in his past 22 games for the club.
Still, Kompany has talked a good game this week, despite City’s poor form. The defender claims that the derby has come at the right time for the struggling Blues to correct a run of poor results.
“It’s a good moment to go into a derby,” said the 29-year-old. “It’s the perfect place for us to go and try to rectify what we’ve had. A derby is a derby. It doesn’t matter what place you are in the league, it’s a derby. My only concern is we get back to our best form. I think it’s our general form that we have to improve. I’ve learnt from the past seasons as well that finishing a season strongly can have an impact on your next season as well.”
The same can be said for United – victory will solidify third-place, with second very much on the agenda at Old Trafford. And while second may be “nowhere” it will prove to be a vast improvement on seventh under David Moyes. Perhaps even momentum for a title challenge next season.
First, however, the derby. Talk of the title can wait, but supporters certainly demand better than a fifth defeat to City in a row. Much better.
United (4-1-4-1): De Gea; Valencia, Smalling, Rojo, Blind; Carrick; Herrera, Mata, Fellaini, Young; Rooney
City (4-4-2): Hart; Zabaletta, Demichelis, Kompany, Clichy; Milner, Touré, Fernandinho, Silva, Navas; Agüero
United: Valdes, Rafael, McNair, Jones, Shaw, Blackett, Di Maria, Januzaj, Wilson, Falcao
City (4-5-1): Caballero, Sagna, Mangala, Kolarov, Lampard, Nasri, Fernando, Dzeko
United 69 – Draw 50 – City 49
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Assistants: S Beck, J Collin
Fourth Official: J Moss
United 1-1 City
£1 bet club
1-1 at HT @ 13/2
Running total: £11.50 up!
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