For decades, the Manchester Derby was a fairly one-sided affair, with Manchester United the bigger, richer, more successful club, and unheralded Manchester City, the backwater club with a colorful local following that reveled in its underachiever status. But those days are over.
This week’s Manchester Derby is between two of the top sides in England, both locked in a desperate struggle for points as the two compete directly with one another for a top four finish.
Manchester City sit fourth in the table, currently occupying the final Champions League spot, with United are hot on their heels, sitting just one point behind in fifth.
Despite their superior position in the standings, City go into the derby in the midst of turmoil. Pep Guardiola’s team was knocked out of the FA Cup by Arsenal over the weekend; making it now a certainty that the much-heralded former Barcelona manager will finish his first season in England trophy-less.
The defeat to Arsenal has opened the door to questions about Guardiola as suddenly people are beginning to openly wonder if the man widely heralded as the greatest coach of his generation is really all that. Further ratcheting up the pressure on Guardiola is the fact that defeat to Arsenal means a top four finish is all that City have left to play for.
The good new for Guardiola and City, is that the Spaniard has relatively few injuries to contend with. Striker Sergio Aguero and midfielder David Silva were both substituted off with injuries against Arsenal. But according to the latest reports, both are expected to be available on Thursday. January signing, Jesus Gabriel, who score three goals and made one assists before being injured earlier this season, may also make his return.
City’s relatively injury-free situation is a direct contrast to the situation at Manchester United. Jose Mourinho’s team will head into Thursday’s clash at the Etihad Stadium without leading goal-scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic and midfielder Marcos Rojo, who are both out for the season with serious knee injuries.
Paul Pogba also hobbled off late on in United’s 2-0 win over Burnley. The French midfielder, who signed with United for a record fee last summer, remains in doubt for this week’s Derby.
But injuries aside, where there’s a sense that City’s season has petered out somewhat, Man United are very much in the ascendency at the moment. Into the last four of the Europa League and with a league cup trophy already added to the cabinet at Old Trafford, Jose Mourinho’s team is still in contention for a double this season. The Red Devils’ fairly routine 2-0 win over Burnley on Sunday, extended their unbeaten streak to nine games across all competitions.
The main question for United going forward is how they will cope with the loss of Ibrahimovic. The Swedish striker, who is United’s top scorer, joint top assist-maker, and has had a hand in creating 88 scoring chances this season.
Ibra’s absence has opened the door for Marcus Rashford. The 19-year-old has five goals on the season and with questions over whether the 35-year-old Ibrahimovic has played his last game in a United jersey, the young England man is seen as the future for United going forward. Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan are two other players who could lend a hand in trying to fill the giant, Zlatan-sized gap at the head of United’s attack.
Looking past the 22 players who will be on the field, these are two managers with what we’ll politely call “history.” Colleagues at Barcelona long ago, they became heated rivals during the time Guardiola was managing Barça and Mourinho was at Real Madrid. Having previously managed Chelsea in two separate stints, Mourinho has been able to flex his superior knowledge of the Premier League to great effect – most notably in United’s recent 2-0 win over the Blues.
Guardiola may still be the more highly regarded manager, but his seeming inflexibility in adapting his style to the rigors of the Premier League could be costly against the more tactically flexible Mourinho.
Watch Manchester City vs. Manchester United this Thursday, April 27 at 2:55 p.m. EST on NBC Sports.