The old derby adage about form going out of the window has offered some hope to Manchester United fans who can see their Blue neighbours disappearing over the hill in the title race. But after the last three displays from City, a fair number of their supporters are hoping that THEIR team does not take current form in the showdown with their cross-town rivals.
City proved league status and ability mean nothing in local tussles through their performances between their return to the Premier League in 2002 and Sheikh Mansour’s takeover in 2008. The Blues won four out of seven derbies at home and then pulled off a famous Old Trafford victory through Benjani’s winner, all when the Reds were at the height of their powers.
United have turned that on its head in recent years, when City have clearly been the dominant power not only in Manchester but in English football. The Blues have won just one of their last six meetings with United at the Etihad Stadium, losing four of them, the exact reverse of their own record at Old Trafford over the same time period.
So, while United fans might be heading to east Manchester with some trepidation after the last derby, the most one-sided 2-0 result you will ever see, there are a fair few Blues who are equally unsettled. Had this meeting fallen six weeks ago, when City were at their imperious best, controlling games and squeezing first the hope, and then the life, out of feisty opponents, there would have been grounds for confidence.
But despite Pep Guardiola’s insistence, after every game, that he felt his team were “so good”, the evidence of the eyes is a little different. The last three games – a 3-2 home defeat by Tottenham, a controversial 1-0 win at Everton and the hard-fought 2-0 FA Cup victory at Peterborough can only have bolstered United’s flagging belief that they could win this one.
Supporters of both teams are hoping that it is their team’s form that goes out of the window in this derby, United because they have been abysmal, and City because their high standard has slipped to reveal a degree of vulnerability. That Spurs win in particular will have come under scrutiny by Ralf Rangnick and his staff, as evidence that City are not the invulnerable winning machine that their previous run of 14 wins and a draw from 15 games, had made them out to be.
It’s true that United don’t have a Harry Kane figure who could cause the kind of problems that the England skipper posed for a rattled Blues defence. But they could attempt to replicate what Kane did, in terms of playing City at their own game – dropping deep to lure out the centre backs and then playing balls in behind for their pace merchants.
Kane also helped to stifle City’s supply line by sitting on Rodri, the fulcrum of City’s attack, whenever Spurs were out of possession, and that is something United will be taking a close look at, as well. It seems unlikely the Reds will start with Cristiano Ronaldo given his recent form, and the fact that in the Old Trafford derby, his unwillingness, or maybe inability, to press hard from the front gave City the kind of time and space on which they thrive.
Everton and Peterborough both set about City, and defended in depth when they needed to, much more effectively than United did in November. And City have lost some of that fluency, rhythm and sharpness of passing that meant they were able to breeze through games without ever truly looking to be under threat.
With several of their big guns rested this week – Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Raheem Sterling and Rodri are all due back in action on Sunday – that could well be the case. But if United have learned anything from their harrowing hammering by the Blues last time out, and from the efforts of Spurs, Everton and Peterborough, it could be another uncomfortable day for the Blues on Sunday.