UPDATES WITH NEW QUOTES FROM GUARDIOLA AND SOLSKJAER
Less than seven kilometers separate the Etihad from Old Trafford as Manchester City and Manchester United are set to renew hostilities in their 178th derby Wednesday at Old Trafford, but the growing gulf between the sides could be accelerated should United be unable to live up to their role as spoilers in the Premier League race.
Manchester City (28-2-4) make the short trek west across the city staring into two seas of red – that of Manchester United’s traditional kit colour but also the one belonging to Liverpool. The Premier League race has created an unlikely alliance of evergreen supporters for one match as the Merseysiders have a vested interest in this contest nearly equal to the bragging rights for the Mancunians supporting these clubs.
“We have four games left so we have to win all four to retain title,” City boss Pep Guardiola said Tuesday, also noting he expects “the best United.”
“I saw what these games do – it’s a different game – the one against Everton is over and the only one that matters is tomorrow,” he added about the added stakes of playing a derby on the road. “It’s not easy place to go but at same time it’s a nice place to go. We know exactly what we have to do. We’re going to go there to do a good game.”
Guardiola’s side again enter this match looking to regain the top spot in the table as City enter the match two points behind Liverpool, but this match takes on added weight as their match in hand. After the final whistle blows, it will be a three-match sprint to the tape for City and Liverpool, and a victory by the Sky Blues would mark the 10th time since March 10 they have flipped spots in the table.
“A derby is always different, always a more emotional game,” City winger Bernardo Silva told the club’s official website. “They are special to the fans, and we feel it. I’m looking forward to it – players enjoy these games the most. They are all important, but big games against the best teams are always the best games to play.
“We know we need the win, and the pressure is on – but that’s a good thing. It’s another massive game that we know we need to win as Liverpool will probably win all the games they have left in the Premier League. If we want to win the title we need to win all of ours.”
City have traded haymakers with Liverpool throughout those six weeks, though the sting of their Champions League exit at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur lingers. They applied some salve to that two-legged defeat by the narrowest of margins – the away goals rule – with a nervy 1-0 victory over those same Spurs less than 96 hours later at the Etihad on Saturday.
Phil Foden – an 18-year-old academy product often overlooked thanks to City’s embarrassment of attacking options throughout midfield – provided the slender margin in the fifth minute when he met Sergio Aguero’s cross with a diving header for his first career Premier League goal. The defence, which had failed to deliver in midweek in conceding three goals at home, did not yield in this instance as City moved to 86 points and retained control of their Premier League destiny in their bid to repeat.
“I think it is momentum (that) take us from the last one month, two months,” Guardiola said. “With this Liverpool side, our side we know if we lose what happens. Liverpool is a big squad, arriving perfect. Semi-finals of Champions League again, the team is so tough.
“I am happy to be consistent every three days, I love my team being there. I am not going to criticise them because we are out (of the Champions League). I see every day what we have done over the past two seasons, they show me character every three days. I have good players, but they have to do it. And when people expect them to do it, it’s harder to do it. That’s why we push them but they respond really well.”
The victory came with a high price as Kevin De Bruyne was forced off late in the first half with a hamstring injury. Considering how utterly dominant the Belgium international was in pulling the strings of City’s offence midweek, he will be clearly missed in this match. Young Foden could again feature, but Guardiola’s more likely midfield personnel will have Fernandinho flanked by Ilkay Gundogan behind the Silvas — Bernardo and David — and Raheem Sterling..
Up front, there is little doubt Aguero will lead the line considering he has tormented United in this derby with nine goals in 13 matches across all competitions. Sterling, however, has not had anywhere near that track record versus United with no goals in 15 lifetime matchups.
As City chase a treble – though not the same one United most famously attained one score ago – this United side appear on the verge of coming completely undone. The shine and lustre that came with the bounce of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s arrival following the sacking of Jose Mourinho has clearly worn off with six losses in eight matches ahead of this contest.
While there was no shame in being outclassed by Barcelona in the Champions League quarterfinals, though the 3-0 scoreline at the Camp Nou did wound the pride some, the 4-0 hiding the Red Devils (19-7-8) were given by Everton at Goodison Park on Sunday rang alarm bells throughout the red side of Manchester.
Nothing went United’s way from opening kickoff to final whistle, with the effort so appalling Solskjaer walked to the away supporters and held his hands up in apology. He was unsparing and unflinching in his post-match assessment, with a warning there will be changes made this summer after such a damaging loss to the side’s top-four hopes.
“You’ve got to ask them, I’ve asked them. You’re not going to get the answer from me,” Solskjaer told MUTV when asked if he had seen enough hurt from his players. “Of course, if you want to play at this club, it has to mean more. We can’t change the whole squad, it’s one step at a time. I’ve said all along I’m going to be successful here. There are players there who won’t be part of that successful team but there are players there, of course, who will be.”
The United manager cut a more calm presence Tuesday as expected with some distance from the loss and was optimistic his team can have a response to that one-sided defeat.
“That’s the best game we could ask for now,” Solskjaer said at his press conference.
“We had a meeting after the game and you can see that all the players are definitely, definitely disappointed and really hurt by that performance.
”The City game is the perfect one to respond [in].
Even Solskjaer’s upbraiding was second-best on a day full of such efforts for United, with former United great and current Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville publicly excoriating the team after the loss. The words, though, mean little considering the uphill challenge Manchester United have to claim a top-four spot since they must pip two of the three among Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, and Arsenal
There are similarities to how United are entering their second derby of the year with City to last term, when Guardiola’s side had a chance to become the earliest side in Premier League history to clinch the title. It took a Mourinho tirade at halftime in which he challenged his team to not be “the clowns standing there watching them get their title” to spark a rally to a 3-2 victory at the Etihad which merely delayed the inevitable.
The Premier League trophy will not be clinched in this match, but it also right now is difficult to see where United’s player leadership will originate to galvanise this side on a short turnaround against their eternal rivals who clearly have the upper hand in the matchup and in the current state of the derby.
Solskjaer will at least have left back Luke Shaw for this match after he completed serving a two-match ban for accruing 10 yellow cards.
City ran out 3-1 winners at the Etihad in November, with David Silva scoring from close range in the 12th minute to open the scoring. Aguero doubled the margin three minutes after the break, finishing a deft 1-2 with Riyad Mahrez with a thunderous angled strike.
Anthony Martial gave United – playing without suspended midfielder Paul Pogba – a lifeline with a penalty on 58 minutes, but Bernardo Silva picked out Gundogan with a cross in the 82nd minute, and the unmarked midfielder calmly slotted past David De Gea.
City have not done the double over United since 2013-14 and are 5-1-1 in their last seven visits to Old Trafford in league play. United, though, still hold a comfortable lead in the all-time results with 73 wins to City’s 52 along with 52 draws.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester United 1, Manchester City 3.
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(Raheem Sterling photo courtesy Raheem Sterling official Twitter account)
(Ole Gunnar Solskjaer photo courtesy Manchester United official Twitter account)