With both clubs much further away from the title race than they would have expected and indeed demanded, the fight to qualify for next season’s Champions League is on the agenda at the Etihad Stadium in Sunday’s Manchester derby.
Manchester City have been almost stagnant in the Premier League table for a number of weeks, but now they must realise that there is a pressing need to rediscover their best form in order to claim a place in the top four. With the quality that exists within the squad it would be almost unfathomable for them to miss out on Europe’s leading competition, and indeed when Pep Guardiola agreed to take over as manager in the summer he must not have even considered the possibility of the club featuring in the Europa League.
A somewhat low-key goalless draw was enough to guide City through to the last eight of the current Champions League, but the real cost was another calf injury suffered by captain Vincent Kompany, and without his presence the back four have looked decidedly shaky more often than not this term. But the emphasis here for the home side will surely be to attack, with David Silva desperate to have an effect on the game in a central role, while Manuel Pellegrini may opt to go for pace in wide areas.
This is the end of another very important, potentially season-defining week for Manchester United, who will feel that they must win to have the best possible chance of avoiding missing out on the Champions League for the second time in three seasons. Their European campaign came to an end on Thursday at the hands of bitter rivals Liverpool despite taking the lead in the second leg, so with a place in the FA Cup having just about been preserved, the objective now will be to simply salvage something from what has been an awful season.
It is key for the Red Devils to make a purposeful start and with Kompany absent, it will be down to the creative eye of Juan Mata to force Man City to chase the game. The Spaniard continues to perform well, but the feeling is that boss Louis van Gaal does not deploy him in his best position, while the continued faith shown in Marouane Fellaini is a major topic for debate. But whatever the team selection, United must improve on their current position of sixth and three points here will help them on the way to doing so.
Kompany will be out for around a month for Man City, who also have doubts over fellow central defender Nicolas Otamendi.
Long-term absentee Ashley Young is back available for Man Utd, who also welcome back Cameron Borthwick-Jackson. However, Ander Herrera has a groin problem and is likely to miss out.
Last Meeting: The needless sending off of Chris Smalling eventually helped to condemn Man Utd to defeat in November 2014, with the defender punished for a mistimed challenge just minutes after charging down goalkeeper Joe Hart’s attempted kick forward. Man City made hard work of taking advantage of having the extra man, but they broke through on the 63-minute mark when Sergio Aguero turned home a low cross.
Played for both – Peter Schmeichel: An iconic figure between the posts for Man Utd, Schmeichel was the intimidating presence that helped them achieve sensational success during the 1990s, winning five Premier League titles and rounding things off by becoming champions of Europe. He was forgiven for ending his career at Man City, where he made 29 appearances in the 2002-03 season.
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