Manchester United’s victory over Burnley on Sunday brings José Mourinho’s side to within a point of Manchester City in the fight for Champions League places. After all, it may be just two from four, with only one of City, United, Liverpool or Arsenal likely to make it to Europe’s top table next season. Thursday’s clash may not come in the midst of a fight for the league title, but it is the most important derby for some time. Victory for Mourinho’s side at the Etihad will push the Reds into the top four for the first time in 2017; a City win might secure Pep Guardiola’s side Champions League football. But who has the advantage on Thursday? Rant investigates…
David de Gea
Some say that it hasn’t been David De Gea’s finest season as United’s goalkeeper, although it is hard to point at many errors this season. De Gea is still the Premier League’s best, at least according to his peers. In truth, De Gea’s highest standards haven’t been required quite as often, while others have finally taken the centre stage after three seasons of the Spaniard’s magic touch. Rumours that De Gea is set to leave for Real Madrid abound, but for the moment Mourinho has a clear goalkeeping advantage.
It wasn’t hard to predict Claudio Bravo’s disastrous season at City. After all, the Chilean struggled with the aerial ball and physical pressure at Barcelona in La Liga. Predecessor Joe Hart was always some way short of world-class, despite sycophants in the fourth estate, so the downgrade hasn’t been as sharp as some may like to make out, but City will surely buy again in the summer. Pep Guardiola lauds the player’s distribution with his feet, but it is the players liability with his hands that could be United’s gain.
Clear advantage for United: City 0-1 United
Antonio Valencia and Matteo Darmian
Jesus Navas and Gael Clichy
There was a time when Antonio Valencia’s name at right-back brought fear to the terraces. No longer. So impressive are the Ecuadorian’s performances – both defensively and in attack – that he was genuinely unfortunate not to be named in the recent PFA Premier League Team of the Year. Valencia is great going forward and now far more secure at the back.
On the other flank, Matteo Darmian will likely be deployed at left-back, with Daley Blind in the centre as injuries cripple Mourinho’s defensive choices. The Italian is now a known commodity: cautious in attack, mediocre in defence, but an unflustered and flexible performer. With Luke Shaw out-of-favour, Darmian will hold up a side, but offers nothing to United’s attacking plan.
Guardiola will probably field a converted winger as well, although it seems unlikely too many at the Etihad will have the same level of confidence in Jesus Navas. Strange choice indeed. Once an effective winger at Sevilla, Navas has struggled to make a real impact in the Premier League, and has become infamously gun-shy.
Gael Clichy is the regular left-back at the Etihad, with Aleksandar Kolarov now deployed more often in the middle. The Frenchman’s career has been on the wane for some time, with Clichy having been out of the France team for almost four years. With maturity Clichy makes fewer mistakes than in the past and he puts up solid numbers, although the attacking game for which he was once famous now ebbs rather than flows.
United edge this one too: City 0-2 United
Eric Bailly and Daley Blind
Nicolas Ottamendi and Vincent Kompany
Eric Bailly has enjoyed a fine first season at United, with his progress interrupted only by injury and the African Cup of Nations. In a season of significant change in central defence, Bailly has been the real stand out performer since a £30 million switch from Villarreal. Classy on the ball, strong in defence, the Ivorian has even cut out the odd moment of poor concentration. High class and getting better.
His partner on Thursday is likely to be Daley Blind, who has rarely featured in the centre this season, although will be called into action with Marcos Rojo, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones all injured. As ever, Blind’s use of the ball is world-class and his reading of the game stronger than many initially thought. The Dutchman performed well at the weekend, but the propensity for a calamitous game is real.
In the City defence Nicolas Ottamendi has enjoyed a stronger second season in Manchester than his first, although the Argentinian has also been a significant part of City’s – at times – tragi-comedic defence. Marcus Rashford will get little change out of Ottamendi in a physical battle, but the 29-year-old’s mobility will be sorely tested by the young striker’s pace and movement.
His partner could be club captain Vincent Kompany, who has suffered another injury-hit season, although there can be no doubting the Belgian’s latent quality or passion for his club. Just nine appearances tell the true story of Kompany’s season. Will he be fit enough or sharp enough on Thursday? The defender’s performance against Arsenal in the FA Cup final at Wembley suggests otherwise.
This one’s a draw. The Blues have the experience, but it’s not without faults: City 1-3 United
Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera and Marianne Fellaini
Fernandino, Yaya Toure and David Silva
Paul Pogba has been the subject of too much criticism this season, with the player’s high-profile world record transfer setting the agenda for every conversation about the Frenchman’s performances. Yet, the numbers stack up in Pogba’s favour, not least that he is the leading chance creator in the division, plays more through balls than any other central midfielder, and has hit the post 10 times. Pogba enjoyed a big game against Chelsea last week; time for another against City?
Alongside Pogba, Ander Herrera has enjoyed a fine season in a both destructive and box-to-box rolls. Herrera’s reinvention has now more than saved the Spaniard’s future at United – it has enabled him to blossom. The player’s energy, discipline and snappy passing is a huge asset to Mourinho’s team.
The third of the trio is likely to be Marouane Fellaini, with Mourinho trusting in the Belgian’s physical presence. As ever, Fellaini’s performances have been patchy, with just one game in five better than adequate. The player’s defensive lapses, poor passing and general lack of mobility have contributed to limp United performances.
For the Blues, Fernandinho has enjoyed an adequate season in midfield where he puts up reasonable defensive numbers, albeit with little to offer going forward. The Brazilian might not have played quite so often had it not been for Ilkay Gündogan’s glass knee.
Fernandinho’s partner in central midfield is likely to be Yaya Touré, a player enjoying something of a resurgence after being ostracised by manager Guardiola earlier this season. The Ivorian didn’t reckon on his manager’s strength of resolve, with the player eventually backing down following a tiresome internal spat. Since reintegration, Touré has not become the force of old but remains has significant big game performer – not least against Arsenal at Wembley last Sunday.
Whatever deficiencies may lie elsewhere in City’s midfield, the Blues can boast a world class performer in David Silva, the Spanish magician who can create from noting and dictate the game’s tempo. Silva has been playing a little deeper this season, but Mourinho may well resort to man-marking the former Valencia player in an effort to cut off the supply to City’s attacking players.
The Blues edge this one. Pogba is brilliant, but Silva could be the difference, and United suffer for Fellaini: City 2-3 United
Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan
Kevin De Bruyne and Leroy Sané
Mourinho has both many options and some tough choices in wide areas, assuming the manager goes with his typical 4-2-3-1 system. Anthony Martial has not often been in Mourinho’s good books this season, but the Frenchman’s performance at Burnley suggests a strong end to the season is coming. Jesse Lingard might be the pragmatic choice; Martial potentially the one that could win United the game.
On the other flank Henrikh Mkhitaryan is likely to come back into the United side after starting Sunday’s victory on the bench. The Armenian causes more damage from central areas, but with Mourinho likely to go for extra central midfield security, Mkhitaryan will cut in from the right hoping to instigation United’s attacks on the break.
For City Kevin De Bruyne has 13 assists to his name in the league alone this season – it’s a huge number. The Belgian’s goal output has slowed this season, but the winger will ask many questions of United’s patchwork defence. De Bruyne’s inclusion in the City side could provoke Mourinho to deploy Lingard as a more defensive-minded option.
On the opposite flank Leroy Sané has deposed Raheem Sterling in recent weeks, with the young German finally demonstrating some of the pace, trickery and eye for goal that provoked City to pay upwards of £40 million last summer. Sané doesn’t yet boast the numbers of an elite player, although five goals in 15 Premier League starts offers a glimpse of the talent available.
On form and production, this one is just about City’s: 3-3 United
With Zlatan Ibrahimovic unlikely to play for the club again, Marcus Rashford will lead the line at the Etihad. The young Englishman scored against Chelsea, Anderlecht and Sunderland to mark a return to form after a mixed season. Rashford may not have scored as frequently this season, at least not with the kid having started far more games on the left than through the centre, but he remains electric. City’s ponderous defence will be sorely tested. A moment of magic to come? Don’t bet against it
City will field 28-goal Sergio Aguero up front. It is a curiosity that despite the Argentinian’s incredible goalscoring consistency during his time in England that he has never appeared in the PFA Team of the Year. He probably won’t be in the reckoning for other personal awards either. Yet, Aguero keeps on scoring, and plenty from the tightest of chances. He is, so often, the difference.
Rashford is brilliant and on form; Aguero world-class and clinical. This one’s a draw: City 4-4 United
On the Bench
Should the tie not go United’s way, Mourinho will have options on the bench, but perhaps not be as plentiful as he might hope. Up front Wayne Rooney is unlikely to start, but offers experience in bursts, while Jesse Lingard can consider himself unlucky if he does not start after a strong season. Michael Carrick will offer an experienced option in central midfield if Mourinho wants to close the game out, while Luke Shaw and Timothy Fosu-Mensah offer defensive options. Ashley Young could appear in any one of five positions. Plenty of options, but perhaps a lack of true quality?
Gabriel Jesus, the brilliant, teenager Brazilian should be fit enough to make the bench – and offers a dangerous, pacy option if City needs to chase the game. Raheem Sterling might start, although Sané has been the preferred option in recent weeks. Guardiola’s defensive options may be restricted by injuries to Bacary Sagna and John Stones, although Alexsandr Kolarov is available. Fabian Delph offers a midfield option from the bench, while striker Kelechi Iheanacho has plenty of talent – if he even makes the bench.
Jesus could be Guardiola’s brilliant wild card, but Mourinho has a broader range of options. Another draw City 5-5 United
After so many years in the game, Mourinho’s hunger to win is still second to none. The Portuguese has plenty of faults, many of which have been on display this season. The manager’s choices have often surprised, and there’s a good argument that although he has improved this squad, too many faults still remain. Yet, as with the victory over Chelsea recently, there is no better exponent of the bespoke tactical response to a potentially superior opponent.
Guardiola is supposed to be the world’s finest coach; the man who invented tiki taka and took Barcelona to hither-to unknown levels of quality. And yet, there can be no doubt his City team has disappointed this season. On paper, he has a far superior squad to Mourinho’s, and yet the teams will enter the Etihad on Thursday very evenly matched. Guardiola should find fault in himself for that. History says he will prove a huge success with the Blues, but right now United has the edge.
This time the smart money is on Mourinho outhinking Guardiola: City 5-6 United