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Premier League: Manchester derby could be most important fixture of season with title race and top-four spots at stake

Those with a sense of humor wouldn’t have missed the implicit irony in Phil Foden scoring the winner against Tottenham Hotspur to preserve Manchester City’s position in the title race. Foden is all of 18 years of age and has already been at City for half that time. In a team that’s crowded for creative talent, this weekend’s match at Etihad was Foden’s twenty-fifth of the season, the goal his seventh.

 Premier League: Manchester derby could be most important fixture of season with title race and top-four spots at stake

Manchester City players in action. Reuters

In Pep Guardiola, City have a manager who has achieved everything yet is never satisfied; his hunger for continuous evolution and perfection is so self-consuming that he can end up overanalysing seemingly innocuous situations. There are players across the globe clamouring to play for Guardiola, and City’s board somehow manages to strike gold with transfers more often than not. Right off a record season, they are amongst the leading pack for another title.

Manchester City today are everything Manchester United were once the picture of, and that realisation will hurt most this Wednesday evening when the two teams lock heads with painfully contrasting targets to play for.

Winning this derby will place Guardiola’s men a point above Liverpool at the top of table. United, in turn, are chasing the Champions League spots and currently trail Spurs and Chelsea by three points each and Arsenal by two.

The form both teams carry into the derby couldn’t be more divergent either. City have won their last ten Premier League games while United have lost six of the eight games they have played since their victory over Paris Saint Germain, and were fortunate to win the other two.

City’s weekend victory over Tottenham would have, or in hindsight, should have, acted as extra motivation for United in their match at Everton. Their response instead left manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with hands held up in apology to the travelling fans. It was a display of such apathy that even David Moyes, so often considered the lowest point of Manchester United’s ten managerial appointments in the post-Busby era, could barely believe what he was watching.

Much has been said in the aftermath of the match, not least by the manager himself and some of the senior players in the squad. Supporters would hope United have the conviction to treat this result as a nadir and begin their upward climb, but it’s doubtful whether a side which got outrun by 11 kilometres against Everton would have enough in the tank to face up to a team of City’s calibre.

City, conversely, would come all guns blazing. With the Champions League semi-final spot cruelly taken away, their energies are now completely focused on retaining the league title. Like for much of this season, they would have to make do without Kevin de Bruyne’s midfield prowess. That the Belgian maestro has only played an equivalent of ten and a half-completed matches in the league this season hasn’t bogged City down.

Raheem Sterling looks a million dollars every time he plays, dishing out world-class performances with remarkable consistency. Leroy Sane, Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva have proven to be regular creative outlets too, which has in part made up for de Bruyne’s absence. And then, of course, there is Sergio Aguero, who has, amazingly, touched the magic figure of thirty goals yet again this season. Like all genuinely great centre-forwards in history, Aguero just finds a way to score goals. Scrappy tap-ins, headers, volleys, long-range screamers, he scores the lot. His nine goals in Manchester derbies will give United defenders a few extra beads of sweat.

On paper and potential, United have the players to take City on. No lineup with Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Romelu Lukaku can truly be considered weak, but then the same group have scored a meagre three goals from open play in eight games. United’s triumph in Paris was looked at by many, including this author himself, as the launchpad for a return to previous, glorious, heights. If anything, the weeks since have accentuated the distance even more.

In a bygone era, United would be planning for cup finals and title run-ins at this stage of the season. While they watch their noisy neighbours indulge in all that, they would have to play with the shadow of a Europa League season hovering over them.

Missing out on the Champions League may also lead to the departure of some of the big names in the team, and like football writer, Jonathan Wilson pointed out in The Guardian, there might not be very many players in the dressing room United fans will be disappointed to lose. Some might even take comfort in an unfavourable outcome in the derby, because it would hurt their sworn rivals from Merseyside.

Wednesday’s derby has so much riding on it that it could turn out to be the most important fixture this season. Six of the best clubs in England could have their season’s fortunes impacted by this one match. Solskjaer and United supporters will not be the only ones hoping the players in red turn up in proper shape and spirit.

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Updated Date: Apr 24, 2019 12:04:02 IST