Few will have predicted just a couple of months ago that Sunday’s Manchester derby would kick off with United ahead of City in the Premier League standings. But after a dramatic reversal in the fortunes of both teams, that is the scenario ahead of the two rivals’ latest meeting at Old Trafford, with the gloom having been lifted from the red side of Manchester in time to descend fully on the blue. And just over a year on from City’s emphatic 3-0 win at Old Trafford en route to claiming the Premier League title, their brief reign as undisputed top dogs in the city looks to have come to an end.
City had begun 2015 level on points with Chelsea, but, just as following their previous title success in 2012, they have found staying on top much more difficult than getting there. Manuel Pellegrini’s side have lost four of their last 10 Premier League matches, winning just three. Not only have they fallen a long way out of the title picture, but they are now a point behind third-placed Manchester United, and perhaps nervously looking over their shoulder hoping they don’t fall out of the Champions League places all together.
A 2-1 defeat at Crystal Palace on Monday night was shocking in its predictability. Included were so many of the issues that have increasingly derailed City’s challenge. While on the surface they controlled the game, amassing more than two-thirds of possession, there was a desperate lack of intensity and purpose both with and without the ball. A defeat to Palace followed in the footsteps of similar slip ups this season against, Burnley, West Ham, Stoke City and, in the FA Cup, Middlesbrough.
While unable to regularly raise themselves against lesser opposition, City have also shown in recent weeks to still be some way from Europe’s true elite. And speculation is rife that defeat at the Round of 16 in the Champions League, coupled with falling off the pace in the Premier League could cost Pellegrini his job after two years in charge. City do not share the same habit for hastily dismissing managers as the other nouveau-riche Premier League club, Chelsea, but seemingly only a lack of an enticing alternative or a drastic upturn in form in the closing weeks can save the Chilean now.
In contrast, Pellegrini’s counterpart across Manchester is riding high and doubtless once again feeling that his oft-questioned methods have been vindicated. Through much of Louis van Gaal’s first season in charge, Manchester United had limped through -- continuing to defy logic by getting results positive enough to keep them in the top four despite never truly impressing.
But then came a Premier League defeat to Swansea quickly followed by an FA Cup ousting by Arsenal. Ahead of their most testing, and most important period of the season, it appeared that their inability to put together a complete performance might unthinkably cost them a place in the Champions League for the second successive season.
Instead, everything suddenly and spectacularly clicked. In midfield, Michael Carrick brought assurance, Ander Herrera added dynamism and quality, while Juan Mata showed why he was not so long ago the Premier League’s leading creative force. And going forward, Wayne Rooney, finally restored to his more natural role, has provided much-needed energy, while Marouane Fellaini has been an unexpected success as a unique physical force coming from deep.
First Tottenham were dismissed with three goals before halftime, and then another top-four rival, Liverpool, were beaten at Anfield. Against Aston Villa last time out, United weren’t as spectacular, but they still had a new-found air of assurance. And it was a win that meant they took an eight point advantage over fifth placed Liverpool with just seven matches remaining, as well as usurping their local foes.
Even when the two Manchester sides clashed earlier in the season, although United acquitted themselves well and fell only to a narrow 1-0 defeat at the Etihad, there was a strong sense that United were still very much playing catch up after a lost season under David Moyes. But Sunday’s derby now presents a chance to, at least temporarily, reclaim local superiority far quicker than seemed possible.
And there could also be more tangible consequences. Van Gaal’s target at the start of the season was a place in the top three, thus ensuring that United would not have to go through a potentially perilous Champions League qualifier. Defeat for City and that could well be their surprising fate. It would be foolish to write off a team that can boast the quality of the likes of Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Yaya Toure, but right now it is United that look the best team in Manchester.
Predicted Score: Manchester United over Manchester City, 2-1
Manchester United: Robin van Persie returned to full training on Wednesday, suggesting he will be in contention for a place in the squad on Sunday. Chris Smalling should be back involved after illness ruled him out against Aston Villa, but Jonny Evans remains suspended. With the team on a three-match winning run, Angel di Maria may have to continue to make do with a place among the substitutes.
Manchester City: Pellegrini’s only injury concern is Wilfried Bony, who missed the defeat to Crystal Palace with an ankle injury, but could return in time for the derby.