When this season’s Premier League fixtures were released back in June, it’s fair to say that the two matches Manchester United fans sought out the most were the home and away clashes with arch-rivals Manchester City. Before a ball was kicked, many would have pointed to April’s encounter at the Etihad Stadium as a potentially season-defining fixture.
And yet now, despite still being in the second week of December, Sunday’s derby at Old Trafford could arguably prove to be the clash that will ultimately decide the destination of the Premier League trophy. Should United emerge victorious and inflict the first defeat of the season on Pep Guardiola’s runaway leaders, then the gap between the two Manchester sides, would be down to five points and would instil a belief among Jose Mourinho’s men that a first league title since 2013 could be within reach.
Defeat, however, would put City 11 points clear at the top of the table, leaving their coronation seemingly simply a matter of time. United go into Sunday’s clash on the back of four consecutive league victories, with their most recent coming at the Emirates Stadium last Saturday, in a compelling 3-1 win over rivals Arsenal.
Goalkeeper David de Gea, who was in outstanding form against the Gunners, was rested for the midweek Champions League success over CSKA Moscow, but will be back between the sticks on Sunday evening. In front of the Spain international, centre-back Phil Jones is expected to be available once again having overcome his injury troubles, although whether he is handed a place in the starting line-up remains to be seen. Summer signing Victor Lindelof has been in impressive form in recent weeks, and may start his first Manchester derby alongside Chris Smalling, with Eric Bailly still sidelined by injury.
Despite caching the eye on Tuesday night against the Russian outfit, left-back Luke Shaw is unlikely to start the derby, with Ashley Young expected to be given the nod in his place. In midfield, meanwhile, Mourinho has confirmed that the ever-impressive Nemanja Matic will start the derby, having been rested for the midweek encounter and with the influential Paul Pogba sitting out his first of a three-match ban, could line-up alongside Ander Herrera or Marouane Fellaini.
It is in the attacking third where Mourinho is likely to keep fans guessing as to who will be tasked with breaking down City’s back-line. Anthony Martial’s sublime assist at the Emirates last weekend was further evidence of the Frenchman’s renewed self-belief and could expect to feature in the derby from the off. Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford scored the goals to send United through to the Champions League round of 16 on Tuesday night, with their strikes coming at the perfect moment, having both been through something of a dry spell in recent weeks.
Mourinho, however, may also turn to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who has sat out both of United’s last two fixtures and it would be just like the Swede to return to action with a bang on Sunday. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who has not started a league match since the 1-0 defeat to Chelsea at the start of November, has fallen down the pecking order due to his own inconsistency, as well as Jesse Lingard’s recent purple patch, whilst Juan Mata could also consider himself to be ahead of the Armenian.
City, who boast the best attack in the league with 46 goals scored from their opening 15 matches, are yet to suffer defeat on the domestic front this season, and will be looking to rack up a record 14th successive league victory. If United are to come away from Sunday’s mouth-watering clash with all three points, they will need to watertight at the back and despite having arguably the world’s best goalkeeper in the shape of de Gea, it is the players in front of the Spaniard that will have to be at the top of their game in order to stifle Guardiola’s attacking talents.
The likes of Lukaku, Martial and Rashford, however, simply must take any chances that come their way for United to stand a chance of victory.
Win on Sunday, and the title race is back on. Lose, however, and an 11-point gap may prove too insurmountable for the Red Devils, even at this early stage.