Manchester United make the short trip across town this Saturday afternoon to face rivals and Champions-elect Manchester City, knowing that only by avoiding defeat can they also avoid the ignominy of having to watch our neighbours celebrate winning the Premier League title at the end of the game….what a traumatic season this has turned out to be, in many ways. A victory for the Blues will ensure a fifth league title in their club history belongs to Pep Guardiola’s side, and for that reason alone you would like to think that the men in red shirts will do everything in their power to prevent this calamity from happening.
If he needed a blueprint for just how to expose the weaknesses that remain in City’s armour, Jose Mourinho was given a timely demonstration of those flaws on Wednesday evening at Anfield, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool team ruthlessly counter-attacking and taking full advantage of City’s defensive slips to emerge with a 3-0 victory in their UEFA Champions League Quarter-Final 1st Leg game. Indeed, the manner and size of the defeat handed out to his team may well see Guardiola “ring the changes” in terms of team personnel for this Manchester Derby game, given that City can well afford a defeat to United, but clearly now need to produce a scintillating display to overturn Liverpool’s advantage in their European return leg on Tuesday night.
United come into the game off the back of a reasonably comfortable 2-0 win over Swansea City at Old Trafford last week, a victory which, coupled with Chelsea’s defeat at home to Tottenham Hotspur, has all but secured a top 4 finish for the Red Devils this season. Goals in the 1st half from Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez were enough to secure the points, though David de Gea did make a couple of smart stops from Tammy Abraham in the second period.
We really need to approach the Derby game with a positive mindset, and seek to carry the attacking threat to City, who are sure to be smarting from their heavy defeat at Anfield….but somehow I simply cannot see Mourinho abandoning his lifelong trait of going into big games away from home with a “safety first” mentality, so this is probably going to descend into a cagey, tetchy war of attrition.
With that in mind, here is my team selection for this game: (fluid 4-2-2-2)
GK: David de Gea – David was strong and focused when he needed to be last weekend against the Swans, the hallmark of a world-class goalkeeper. The rumours circling that he is about to sign a new, improved contract at United will be very welcome news to all Reds. He is sure to be a busy man this Saturday evening, no matter what team Guardiola selects.
RB: Antonio Valencia – Tony has had a solid, if mostly unspectacular season, cementing his reputation as one of the most athletic, capable full-backs in England; if he faces German International Leroy Sane on Saturday evening, that reputation will most certainly be tested, but Sane can be shackled, as young Trent Alexander-Arnold showed on Wednesday evening. Hopefully Valencia gets a few opportunities to push forward and show his attacking prowess too.
LB: Luke Shaw – Yes, I know Mourinho will start with Ashley Young at left-back, but I’d be more than happy to let Shaw prove that he is up to the task of keeping tabs on England team-mate Raheem Sterling, who is a likely starter on the right for City after only featuring as a substitute at Anfield. Shaw also has plenty of ability when pushing forward.
CBs: Eric Bailly & Chris Smalling – Eric Bailly should be fit to play in this game, and is still our most convincing centre-back, when fit…. Ideally, I would partner Eric with Phil Jones, but Jones will remain sidetracked by injury, and so instead I’d opt for the experience of Smalling over the raw talents of Victor Lindelof. They are likely to come up against the youthful exuberance of Gabriel Jesus, since I wouldn’t expect Guardiola to risk Sergio Aguero ahead of their return game with Liverpool.
DMs: Nemanja Matic & Ander Herrera – These two really haven’t played that much together, but now is as good a time as any to see if they can form an effective partnership in front of the defence. Matic has arguably been our most consistent outfield player this season; Herrera has endured a poor season and could do with putting in a few strong performances before the close of the season, if only to remind us that he’s still a useful player to have around the squad.
AMs: Paul Pogba & Jesse Lingard – Pogba remains our best player when on form, but that has been patchy at best since before Christmas, and we really need to see much more dominating displays from our French general…Saturday would be a great time for him to upstage Kevin de Bruyne (if the Belgian is even selected by Guardiola) and control the game for United. Lingard was simply majestic against Carlos Carvalhal’s Swans, repeatedly cutting through the visitors’ rearguard with surging, weaving runs, creating havoc…something similar at City would be just what we need, though clearly a much more difficult trick to perform. Jesse’s industry will be invaluable as we wrestle for control of the game.
CFs: Romelu Lukaku & Alexis Sanchez – the big Belgian hitman has ably demonstrated that United were absolutely right to pursue his signature last summer, his superb goalscoring tally in his debut season now complemented by displays of increasing maturity as an all-round link-up player. I’d play Sanchez as the ‘little man’ in the partnership, two up front to keep the City defence occupied at all times. The Chilean finally notched his second goal in a United shirt last weekend with a well-taken finish from a Lingard through ball; more of the same please!
BENCH: Romero, Lindelof, Martial, Carrick, Mata, Young, Rashford.
Beyond the fact that no-one at Manchester United should wish to suffer the pain that will surely be ours if City beat us to clinch the league title on Saturday evening, there are also places for the side which will face Tottenham Hotspur in the F.A. Cup Semi-Final ‘up for grabs’ and I expect to see every man in a red shirt giving his utmost in this game, particularly as they all let us down so badly in the reverse fixture at Old Trafford back in December.
I’d like to say that Jose Mourinho will have us carrying the threat to City in an even more aggressive way that Klopp did on Wednesday, but I know that won’t happen, so why waste time even dreaming about it…? In reality, he’ll set us up to try to strangle any attacking threat City pose, with men defending deep, and then seek to hit the Blues on fast counter-attacks. It didn’t work at Old Trafford, where de Bruyne and David Silva simply basked in the huge amounts of empty space they were given to play into… we can but hope that neither of them actually play on Saturday, because for all his reputation, stand-in Ilkay Gundogan is not in their class, and is easier to close out of a game in my opinion.
Just don’t lose, United; at least save us from that catastrophic experience…