This weekend’s Manchester derby could not come at a better time. Manchester City are top of the table by eight points, and could set a record by winning 14 straight matches. Manchester United are in second, having plodded along within reasonable sniping distance of their local rivals.
Catching City has largely remained plausible because of this fixture. Win it, and the gap is a mere five points. Fail to win at Old Trafford, though, and get engravers at the ready for Manchester City’s third Premier League title.
City’s near flawless season to date makes any prospect of a genuine title race only a faint hope. Guardiola’s team have not been at their fluent of best of late, but they have still only dropped two points in the league this season. It’s worth noting that those two points were largely down to a foolish Kyle Walker red card.
History of fixtures can be misleading. Changes in management and different players make comparisons between now and years past barely relevant. The track record of this bitterly-contested derby at Old Trafford has a pattern of note, though.
Manchester City did not win a league match at Manchester United’s home from 1974 until 2008. Since 2011 – the season when City won their first Premier League title – Manchester United have won only one of six derbies on their turf.
In that period, too, City have won the league twice. Manchester United have won it just once – in Alex Ferguson’s final season – and finished outside the top four in all but one of the seasons since Ferguson’s retirement.
The title tussle in 2011/12 ended in one of the all-time great sporting moments. The voice of Martin Tyler echoes around the Etihad Stadium to this day, but it was the 6-1 humiliation at Old Trafford that set the tone for City’s campaign. Roberto Mancini’s side not only secured a rare derby win, they dismantled United in a way that had been unthinkable throughout Ferguson’s historic reign.
This weekend will have similar implications. City’s majestic football has deprived us of a toe-to-toe battle in Manchester, but this weekend is a neutral’s glimmer of hope. It is no more than a cooling ember of what could have been a roaring, fiery season, but it might just be the final chance to grasp City before they storm into the sunset.
Jose Mourinho and Guardiola are – too often, perhaps – the stories themselves. City’s manager was in the spotlight for an excitable chat with Nathan Redmond last week, and Jose Mourinho’s pre-match press conference this Friday will have the attention of the footballing world. Their rivalry began in Spain, and each new chapter gets thorough investigation for the slightest signal of bitterness.
Underachievement last year contributed to relative peace. For fans of ‘mind games’, we can be sure that will end in the coming days.
Guardiola, though, has the upper hand on Mourinho with eight wins to Mourinho’s four. Both will approach the match in the same way they have approached previous meetings, despite the circumstances.
Mourinho has to end City’s dominance at Old Trafford, and beat his nemesis for a fifth time to keep the door towards the Premier League trophy ajar. He was hired to bring major titles to Old Trafford, and push back against the growth of the noisiest neighbours in world football.
Another home loss would be a failure for Mourinho, and – perhaps more importantly – set City on the path of an invincible Premier League campaign.
Talk of ‘power shifts’ drew plenty of attention prior to the north London derby a few weeks ago. The contest for the upper-hand in Manchester is far clearer this decade, and there’s no doubt the onus is on this weekend’s hosts to wrestle against the sky-blue juggernaut.
If Mourinho can mastermind a second Premier League home derby win since 2011, it will not only begin to offset City’s years of superiority, but reignite the chance of a challenge to Guardiola’s side.