Although Manchester City and Manchester United sit fourth and fifth in the table respectively, Thursday’s meeting at the Etihad could be one of the most important in recent years.
The former’s defeat to Arsenal in Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final confirmed that for the very first time in his coaching career Pep Guardiola would finish trophy-less.
Across the city, United boss Jose Mourinho will be hoping to further pile the pressure on to the Spaniard by dropping him out of the top four.
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Football Whispers have picked out the five key areas that will decide Thursday’s Manchester derby.
LIFE WITHOUT ZLATAN
Injury against Anderlecht in the UEFA Europa League has ruled Zlatan Ibrahimovic out for the rest of the season and created doubts over whether he will play for the Red Devils again.
The Swede has always been a man for the big occasion. When his side is struggling, or in need of a goal, Zlatan finds a way.
Now United are forced to turn to their young strikers. The pressure falls on 19-year-old Marcus Rashford.
The Mancunian has taken everything he could from his time beside the 35-year-old.
“You will see the benefits in years to come. What I have learnt from him is irreplaceable,” he said.
Rashford has scored three times in his last five games, including the extra-time winner against Anderlecht – perfect timing with the club’s topscorer out.
UNITED IMPROVING OUT WIDE
Recently, especially in the goals United conceded against Anderlecht and Middlesbrough, the danger began out wide.
Whoever plays at full-back, be it Antonio Valencia, Luke Shaw, Ashley Young or Matteo Darmian, they are going to face a huge test on Thursday.
Man City’s threat comes from the pace out wide the speed they have in behind. Leroy Sané on the left, Kevin De Bruyne through the middle, Raheem Sterling on the right and the deadly movement of Sergio Aguero up top.
Fail to deal with City’s attacking threat and it will give United’s centre-backs far too much to cope with in the middle.
Despite being a winger, Valencia has won plenty of plaudits for his performances at right-back. However, 21 per cent of shots Manchester United face come from their opponents’ left side.
The Ecuadorian’s eagerness to get forward leaves space behind and Sane will be ready to try to exploit that.
UP TO CITY TO PUSH THE TEMPO
It worked against Chelsea, so there’s no reason to think that Mourinho is going to change the way he takes on United’s city rivals for this crucial midweek fixture.
When the Portuguese named his team to face former club Chelsea many thought it was extremely defensive. But the plan became clear after seven minutes when Ander Herrera slipped the perfect ball to Rashford to open the scoring.
Defensively United were superb. Playing with bodies behind the ball, they frustrated and restricted Chelsea’s space. The same game-plan is ideal for stopping City. Although the level of performance from the away side needs to reach the same intensity, it will be up to Pep’s team to take the initiative.
When the home side win the ball their transitions will need to be sharp and slick. There will be no space for errors or delaying the attack. One of the best ways to punish a team playing deep is to attack with pace before they can re-organise.
City, on form, are one of best at playing on the counter. With master tactician Jose ready for them, they will need to raise their game.
THE THREAT OF MARTIAL
Anthony Martial had one of his best games in a red shirt for a very long time against Burnley. With two shots on target, two key passes and four successful dribbles, he was rewarded with a goal and an assist.
When Mourinho took on Chelsea, he relied on the friendship and understanding between Rashford and Jesse Lingard. After his display at Turf Moor, there will be a temptation to use the French forward to threaten City with his pace on the break.
Guardiola’s defence can be a little cumbersome at times so the pace of Martial is perfect at exposing that weakness.
“There was a stat that came up that he had done the most sprints (71) in the game, which is the most he has done this season,” Gary Neville told Sky Sports after the Burnley game. “It was the most he has done in his Manchester United career.”
“That tells you the reaction is there. The capability to show the work-ethic is there.”
MIDFIELD BATTLE KEY
German midfielder Ilkay Gundogan is already sidelined and David Silva is a doubt for City, leaving space in the midfield that needs solving.
On the opposite side, Paul Pogba has been ruled out by Mourinho and Herrera is doubtful with a knock.
Those absentees leaves holes and opportunities in the middle of the park. With so many first-choice players not on the pitch, it leaves the battle for the midfield wide open.
Whoever gets their selection right in this area could win the Manchester bragging rights and take the lead in the battle for fourth place.