A week can be a long time in football and so four months can feel like a lifetime. It’s fair to say a lot has changed since Manchester United and Manchester City last locked horns.
Back on that rain-drenched November afternoon at Old Trafford, United was left utterly humbled. The scoreline may not have been as embarrassing as the 5-0 drubbing handed to them by Liverpool just two weeks earlier but the home side’s performance certainly was.
United were dominated from start to finish as they made less than half the amount of passes as their opponents, had just 32 per cent possession and only managed to muster a single shot on target.
City only won by two first-half goals and it should have been a lot more but, if anything, the lowly scoreline cut even deeper because the Blues didn’t feel the need to go for the jugular to make a statement as they did in the famous 6-1 win. Instead, they almost took pity on their neighbours and decided to see it out in comfort. Damning.
It would prove to be the penultimate nail in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s coffin and the final one came a week later when United were dealt a shocking 4-1 hammering at the hands of Watford.
Solskjaer was sacked and after three games of Michael Carrick manning the wheel, Ralf Rangnick came in on an interim basis. The German has done his best to make United more solid but the same problems persist. Trouble scoring goals, a slack midfield and a mentality as fragile as porcelain.
The fixture list has been kind to Rangnick thus far in that, aside from Atletico Madrid in the Champions League, he is yet to face any top-level teams. But his side haven’t been able to take advantage at all having won just two of their last seven matches. On paper, you’d expect them to be picking up at least five victories, maybe even six, considering the level of the opponents they’ve faced.
Now, City loom ominously on the horizon. A team that have dropped points just six times this season – whereas United have lost six times with a further eight draws – and have once again been sublime.
There’s a fear that it could once again get ugly, with United hardly playing well against teams they should be beating comfortably and now having to play the best in the land. However, the way that City have been playing themselves in recent weeks may offer just a glimmer of hope.
It looked like business as usual following the winter break as Pep Guardiola’s side won all of their first four games back with an aggregate score of 15-1 but then they hit a bit of a roadblock.
Despite losing to Southampton and Wolves beforehand and then going on to lose to Burnley and Middlesbrough afterwards, Tottenham Hotspur somehow conspired to once again defeat City. Yet again in dramatic fashion, this time with a last-minute winner.
It was easily City’s worst display of the season so far, as they were woeful defensively and far below their usual imperious best going forward – but everyone has off days. Perfection is hard enough to achieve as it is, let alone sustaining it.
But the performance does seem to have rocked them slightly, put them off their game just enough to where not everything is clicking quite how it used to. Their following two matches were won, which does caveat what is to follow, but they haven’t been convincing victories at all.
Against an Everton side who haven’t impressed much under Frank Lampard, they were put under considerable pressure and looked a touch rattled. Unable to find their usual groove. They were fortunate to come away with the victory as only a terrible Michael Keane mistake gave them the opening for Phil Foden to score in the 82nd minute and then an even worse error from the referee failed to give the Toffees a penalty late on.
City then played Peterborough United in the FA in midweek and again it took them some time to break down their opponents. Despite the Posh sitting at the bottom of the Championship, they were repeatedly able to get at the Blues with long balls in behind and pacey forwards. Peterborough had two great chances to take the lead just after the break and if they had have taken them an unthinkable upset might just have occurred.
Goals from Riyad Mahrez and Jack Grealish eventually broke their resolve but it was far from the comfortable night that many may have expected. Three successive games in which City were looking off-colour.
As the cliche goes, it’s a sign of a good team if you can win when not playing your best and with the way City do things it may be frightening for United to think that they’re due to get back to their best soon. Yet, there has been a rare vulnerability present over the last two weeks that should give United a bit of confidence. They have enough talent to compete with City on the day, even if they can’t over a season.
Coupled with the fact United have a great recent record at the Etihad – winning on their last three visits there – an unexpected result seems much more of a possibility.