For all of the terrific football Manchester City have produced on the pitch during their six-game winning streak they carry into the Etihad for Sunday’s 177th Manchester derby versus eternal rivals United, it has been the troublesome allegations off it that have dominated the headlines surrounding the reigning Premier League champions.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Manchester City (9-2-0) have looked imperious for most of the season, their lone loss a stunning 2-1 home defeat to Lyon to open Champions League group play. The Citizens, though, have one foot through the door in advancing to the knockout round after smashing six past Shakhtar Donetsk without reply Tuesday to put them top of Group E with two matches remaining.
While City were clearly the best team, there were some noses turned up regarding the source of their second goal – a penalty Gabriel Jesus converted after Raheem Sterling stubbed his toe into the turf while shooting and fell without any assistance from Shakhtar defender Mykola Matviyenko. Referee Viktor Kassai pointed to the spot without hesitation – even Guardiola turned to his bench in disbelief it was awarded – and after Jesus stroked his 12-yard effort home, the rout was on.
The Brasil international finished with three goals, converting a second and more deserving penalty late, while Sterling, David Silva and Riyad Mahrez supplied the other half of the haul.
But the dark clouds that had been forming since last week, created by the allegations published in the German magazine Der Spiegel that City regularly and repeatedly circumvented rules regarding Financial Fair Play and were cut a sweetheart deal by then-UEFA general secretary and current FIFA president Gianni Infantino to avoid a Champions League ban persisted.
“Well I think about that issue the club issued a statement last Friday about what happened, the stolen emails,” Guardiola said before Tuesday’s victory. “But about the business, about how they handle this kind of situation, I am completely out of that. I am part of the club, I am supporter of the club, and we want to do what we have to do in terms of the rules.
“I think that’s (the allegations) been said for the last decade, so the people is saying about the club for the last decade just win because we have money. That is always the issue here, because to pass to stay in one level and achieve another level you need a lot of time, and of course money. When you invest more, this gap, the time reduces. And that’s normal.”
The team itself has not offered a statement beyond what was offered last week, in which they labeled the allegations an “organized and clear” attempt to damage the club’s reputation while referring to the leaked emails as “out of context materials purportedly hacked or stolen from City Football Group and Manchester City personnel and associated people.”
On the pitch, though, everything has been rosy for City. They have piled up 23 goals while conceding just one during their winning streak, getting strikes from 11 different players. There has been no drop-off in form since Kevin De Bruyne was again lost to a knee injury in the Carabao Cup win over Fulham, and the club received more good news Friday when Sterling put pen to paper on a three-year extension to stay at City through 2023. The England international has 51 goals and 55 assists in all competitions since joining from Liverpool in 2015.
Silva, one of City’s longest-tenured players after arriving on the blue side of Manchester in 2010, feels the hold of power has moved across town during his time with the Citizens.
“United commanded a lot of respect when I arrived,” he told the club’s official website. “But I think it changed from when we won at Old Trafford 6-1 (in 2011) and the mentality changed a little bit that day. Now I think we are held in great esteem.
“You remember a bit about every derby you’ve played in,” Silva added, “but that one, the result, and the fact that it was at United, the respect that United commanded in that period in time, makes it one that will forever go down in history.”
Manchester United (6-2-3) avoided history of a horrid sort in its last trip seven kilometres to the east, recovering from a 2-0 halftime deficit to win 3-2 and delay the inevitable of City’s clinching of the Premier League title. In a season of fits and starts, it appears United finally have achieved a sense of consistency as they have won three on the trot.
Jose Mourinho’s side performed an impressive smash-and-grab raid at Juventus on Tuesday, scoring twice after the 85th minute to stun the Italian giants 2-1 for their biggest victory since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013. Juan Mata scored on a free kick on 86 minutes, and Juve defender Leonardo Bonucci bundled home a free kick by Ashley Young in a goal-mouth scrum three minutes later for an own goal as United greatly enhanced their chances of advancing from Group H of the Champions League.
“As soon as there was the free-kick in there, I had the confidence that I had to take it,” Mata told MUTV about his equaliser. “I told Ash: ‘Please let me take it, because I can go over the wall. So I tried to do what I do in training a lot of times, practicing, practicing. It was important to score to make it 1-1 and, after, it led us to the 1-2. I think because of the venue and the importance of the game, it’s one of the best (that I’ve scored).”
While derby week usually means Mourinho offers some sort of locker room material that can galvanise an opponent, “The Special One” demurred about both the FFP allegations swirling around City and about Guardiola’s side, knowing full well a defeat in this game would leave United 12 points adrift of their noisy neighbours and all but ending their chances of winning the league.
“If we draw (the difference) is nine (points),” he told The Times. “If we lose it is 12. We have to just think about the match, it is difficult enough as an isolated event … they are a very powerful team.
“If you want to speak about their football potential we can speak and about where football potential starts, and that starts with investment,” Mourinho added, himself no stranger to big-money football at his previous stops and with United. “After that of course there is a quality of the work, of the organisation. I think that is untouchable, but what’s behind it, I cannot say.”
Mourinho does have a late injury concern as midfielder Paul Pogba missed practice Friday after picking up a knock against Juventus. Romelu Lukaku is expected to be available after missing the last two matches with a hamstring injury, giving Mourinho the selection headache of which three will be up front among the Belgium international, Mata, Alexis Sanchez, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial.
Of the group, Martial appears to be the safest on the left side, with Lingard getting a surprising start on the right as Mourinho chose Sanchez to play centre-forward for his industry. It would not be surprising to see Rashford restored to the right side, though Mourinho could opt for Sanchez and Mata to play with Martial if Lukaku is not fully ready to start.
One of Manchester’s own will serve as referee, with Anthony Taylor getting the call to oversee his first derby.
United lead the all-time series 73-51, and the teams have shared the points on 52 occasions. Guardiola has yet to beat United at the Etihad as Mourinho held City to a 0-0 draw in 2016-17 before last season’s defeat.
Per Ladbrokes, oddsmakers do not seem all that sold on a Manchester United resurgence against the in-form style of City, who are 4/11 favourites to win this match. United are 15/2 longshots to return across town with a win for the second straight season and there are 4/1 odds on the sides splitting the points.
For the #Starman offers, the only one that looks remotely appealing and has a realistic chance of occurring is Aguero getting a goal and an assist at 9/2 when compared to what is being offered for Pogba.
City are 5/6 favourites to win with more than 2.5 goals scored while they also have 17/5 odds for a 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline. There is a clear line of notice for a 0-0 or 1-1 finish at 6/1 odds, and for those who think lightning can strike twice, United offer a return of 11/1 with another victory over 2.5 goals as opposed to 18/1 for a 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline.
Aguero, unsurprisingly, leads the list of choices to score the match’s first goal at 14/5 odds, but Jesus’ hat trick against Shakhtar impressed enough to put him second at 16/5, ahead of Sterling (4/1). The next four choices also belong to the sky blue hue of Manchester as Mahrez (9/2), Leroy Sane (5/1), and the Silvas — David (8/1) then Bernardo (9/1) get billing ahead of Lukaku (10/1). Martial and Rashford are both 11/1 picks to make it 0-1, with Sanchez a step back at 12/1.
Aguero and Jesus are better than even money to score in this match, with the Argentine at 3/4 and his South American compatriot 5/6. Sterling narrowly missed out being included in this group at 5/4, closely followed by Mahrez (13/10) and Sane (6/4). Lukaku again leads the line for United, this time at 14/5, trailed by Rashford (3/1), Martial (16/5), and Sanchez (10/3).
There has been one thing missing in the build-up to this match — enmity. One part is because the teams had mid-week Champions League obligations, which both handled deftly (and excitingly in the case of United). One could only imagine the Mourinho mood had he returned from Italy without a result in that contest, and the inquest that would have ensured. A second part is the oxygen being sucked out of the room by the explosive allegations in Der Speigel. This has the potential to hang over City throughout the season and only grow into a larger mushroom cloud the further they progress in Champions League should that happen. But that is for spring, for now, let us try to stay in the seven kilometres between the clubs.
“The Special One” still has many things to ponder across his midfield and attack. It seems all but certain Lukaku will return to lead the line, and Martial is in too good of form to be dropped, so that leaves Rashford, Sanchez, Mata, and Lingard for the right wing. Sanchez is clearly out of position there, so scratch the Chilean.
Lingard did not do anything to warrant a second consecutive start in his surprising mid-week appearance at Juventus, so now it is down to Rashford and Mata. The likely pick is Mata because Rashford has the ability to enter the match at either forward position off the bench, giving Mourinho some versatility.
The next area is midfield, where Pogba and Matic will start, but the choice is between Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini at the right slot. Herrera did enough versus Juve to warrant a second start, getting the first after his strong effort against Bournemouth, but Mourinho has always had a soft spot for Fellaini’s disruptive abilities. The hedge is still Herrera in this instance.
If there is a worry for Mourinho, it is at right back. Ashley Young has been credible of late, but there are few in the Premier League with the pace of Benjamin Mendy, and he will be eager to test Young at every opportunity. That is another reason Herrera is would get the call over Fellaini.
Guardiola does not have a selection headache on his hands for this contest. Aguero is going to lead the line, Sterling and Mahrez will flank him, and the Silvas will do likewise with Fernandinho. Sane will come off the bench, as will Ilkay Gundogan if needed. City’s form has been so rampant the past fortnight one almost has to wonder if any overconfidence has crept into the side.
Then again, all Guardiola has to do is show tape of that 15-minute stretch in the second half when Pogba grabbed the match by its throat and scored twice before City’s disastrous high line on Sanchez’s free kick gifted Smalling the go-ahead tally.
For all the talk of how Mourinho parks the bus on the road to get a result, he still has gotten them lately. United are 2-1-1 in their last four versus Big Six opponents outside Old Trafford and their 2-2 draw at Chelsea let them kick on to bigger and better things, home defeat to Juventus notwithstanding.
The only fear with United is they emptied the tank leaving it so late versus Juventus. The only problem with that is City’s attack promotes plenty of fear even at full strength.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester City 2, Manchester United 0.