After two seasons recovering from the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson and too many years of frugality, Manchester United will have a chance to reassert their authority in Manchester and in the Premier League in Sunday’s Manchester derby. United will go into the fixture at Old Trafford in third place, two points behind their neighbors and league leaders Manchester City.
It could prove to be a crucial contest in United’s attempts to get back to the top. It is now three seasons since they won the last of their 20 league championships, with this being the first time since that they have held realistic ambitions of landing the top prize. Yet there is still much for Louis van Gaal’s side to do in order to prove they have real title credentials.
It is after all less than three weeks since United capitulated the only other time this season that they came up against elite competition. Against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium, Manchester United found themselves two goals behind after seven minutes and 3-0 down after 20 to leave them unable to recover. On that day they were thoroughly outclassed, looking wide open in midfield and defense and, with the exception of some sparkle from Anthony Martial, devoid of ideas going forward.
The challenge for Van Gaal is to show in the derby that the performance against Arsenal represented a blip rather than a true indicator of how much progress still needs to be made with a squad that has seen remarkable turnover in the past 18 months.
After the Arsenal loss, the veteran Dutch coach challenged his players to bounce back like champions, and they provided a strong response when cruising past Everton, 3-0. But Everton contributed heavily to their own downfall and United were less than impressive in securing a 1-1 draw with CSKA Moscow on Wednesday night. The ponderous possession that has so often afflicted United this season returned in Russia, not helped by another subpar showing from captain Wayne Rooney.
Van Gaal has returned the 30-year-old to his favored role leading the attack, yet he continues to look labored and ineffectual both with and without the ball. The sort of brilliance he produced when winning the Manchester derby for United with an outrageous overhead kick in Feb. 2011 now appears a lifetime ago.
Still, it is clear that Rooney remains Van Gaal’s primary attacking option. And at least United have theirs available. Manchester City will go into the heavyweight fixture missing their leading marksman Sergio Agüero, who remains out with a hamstring injury. City’s key creative asset David Silva is also a doubt to recover from ankle problem.
In the past City have capitulated under the weight of such key absentees; their squad, despite the lavish investment, unable to step up to the same technical and mental level. But now, with £100 million spent on two young attackers in the summer, they will hope the situation is.
City’s last two outings provide a powerful argument for that being the case. On Saturday, Raheem Sterling scored a hat-trick as Manuel Pellegrini’s side brushed Bournemouth aside, 5-1. Four days later, it was the other big summer arrival, Kevin de Bruyne, who stepped up when City were in need, netting a superb injury-time goal to deliver a potentially crucial 2-1 victory over Sevilla in the Champions League.
With Chelsea’s collapse, there can be little doubt that City are the outstanding candidates to lift the Premier League title for the third time in five seasons this campaign. And yet there have still been signs of a lack of consistency that has prevented City from dominating as many expected in previous seasons. Home defeats to Juventus and West Ham, coupled with a 4-1 defeat at Tottenham has given the chasing pack, including United, hope that City’s supreme talent may not necessarily be enough.
On Saturday, United have the opportunity to reinforce those doubts and make a powerful case for their own credentials.
Prediction: Sterling and De Bruyne will provide a severe threat, but the absence of Agüero, and possibly Silva, still represents a serious weakening of City’s attacking potential. Despite playing at home, Van Gaal could well decide to take a more pragmatic approach than he did at Arsenal, content to contain City’s threat with a two-man shield in front of the back four that is likely this time to include Morgan Schneiderlin. United’s defense is still less than watertight and could be exposed by the quality in City’s side, but in the end both sides may not be too disappointed with a share of the points.
Predicted score: Manchester United 1-1 Manchester City
Manchester United: Luke Shaw and Paddy McNair remain sidelined, while Ashley Young remains a major doubt.
Manchester City: As well as the injuries to Agüero and Silva, Fabian Delph and Gael Clichy are ruled out.