By Suresh Nair
YOU can even feel the Manchester heat in Singapore as we await Sunday’s rousing Manchester derby at Old Trafford of the top two teams in the English Premier League (EPL).
Yes, really juicy stuff with No 1 versus No 2 in perhaps the most anticipated clash of the campaign so far.
Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City have built an eight-point lead following an unbeaten start to the season that has included 13 straight victories – equalling the record for the longest winning run in a single Premier League campaign.
Don’t ever write off Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United. The Red Devils have equalled a historic club record by remaining unbeaten at Old Trafford for 40 matches in all competitions.
You can wager on this: With former Barcelona boss Guardiola and ex-Real Madrid manager Mourinho having developed a fierce rivalry during their time together in Spain, Sunday’s meeting promises to keep you sitting at the edge of your seat for 90 minutes.
In my opinion, the five biggest talking points, wherever you’re watching in Chua Chu Kang or Changi, Bedok or Bukit Batok, Tampines or Tanjong Pagar will be:
1: CLOSING THE GAP?
This will probably be the juciest question on the lips of every United fan as Mourinho’s men look to rein in the Premier League leaders, who have a commanding eight-point lead. The Red Devils have won all 11 home matches this season and could set a club record on Sunday by going 41 games unbeaten at Old Trafford.
City, mind you, are undefeated in the Premier League this campaign and have a 100 per cent record on the road. Clearly, something has to give at the Theatre of Dreams this weekend.
2: CITY WITH A EUROPEAN HANGOVER?
Rather unusually, Guardiola’s men suffered a first defeat of the season on Wednesday when losing 2-1 to Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine. Take note, there were seven changes to his team with many of his big players rested, including Kevin De Bruyne, but Fernandinho, Leroy Sane and Sergio Aguero (a substitute) all played.
It remains to be seen if the long flight home will have an impact, although a Sunday late kick-off will definitely help.
3: REPLACEMENT OF POGBA?
Paul Pogba, the most expensive Red Devil, will be nicely seated in the VIP box as he is suspended following his red card against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium last Saturday. Mourinho has already confirmed Nemanja Matic will definitely play, so who will partner him in central midfield?
If Marouane Fellaini is fit to play, then he’ll offer a charming combative option, while Ander Herrera is another who could be suited to a high-energy role around the park.
In terms of other absentees, Eric Bailly and Michael Carrick do not have a chance of returning, but Phil Jones and Zlatan Ibrahimovic could both feature.
4: LINGARD CONTINUES TOP FORM?
Remember how Jesse Lingard scored a ‘Goal of the Season’ contender in the 4-2 win at Watford and was at the double against Arsenal? His two goals at the Emirates proved the difference against the Gunners, taking his total for the season to six goals.
Yes, he’ll be itching to get a run out in the derby as a local lad.
Notably, he was rested for the Champions League win over CSKA Moscow. Now he’s set to fire again.
5: THREE AT THE BACK AGAIN?
The Red Devils have played with three centre-backs in the last three wins against Watford, Arsenal and CSKA. But will Mourinho opt for the same formation again, and who will feature?
It was Victor Lindelof, Chris Smalling and Daley Blind who got the nod in midweek, but Marcos Rojo was preferred to the Dutchman for the previous two outings. Phil Jones also has a chance of being fit for this one.
Five talking points aside, let’s go by track record, especially if you’re a betting man: The last team to beat United at home were City in September, 2016 and a repeat performance would leave the club, once derided as “noisy neighbours” by former United boss Sir Alex Ferguson, 11 points clear at the summit.
Going on sheer form, you cannot deny that City have been playing some exhilarating football this campaign with Guardiola’s style of exhilarating attacking play, which served him so well at his previous clubs, bringing the expected rewards after a disappointing lack of consistency last season.
The Red Devils may not have been that colourful and have suffered two defeats on the road – to Huddersfield Town and Chelsea – but they, too, have looked like champions at home.
The 40 games unbeaten streak included 29 wins and 11 draws with 85 goals scored and just 17 conceded. This season’s Premier League record at Old Trafford is played seven, won seven – 20 goals for and just one against.
Injuries and suspensions are always any manager’s biggest bug-bear: Mourinho, however, will be without his key French midfielder Pogba, who starts a three-match ban.
Without a doubt, United have produced their best football when they have had Pogba and Serbian anchorman Nemanja Matic on the field together and the former Juventus midfielder will be sorely missed.
Ready to fire away? I believe the name of Sunday’s derby match will be a six-letter word: Attack!
Given the gap between the two clubs in the table, it will be intriguing to see if Mourinho maintains his habit of playing defensively against title rivals, a tactic which has been much criticised following the goalless draw at Liverpool in October.
WHAT POGBA SAYS
Pogba, however, says from the sidelines that United will approach the game in a positive fashion. “We want to win. They need to win as well because they know that we are behind and we are closing and closing,” he said. “If I didn’t believe that (we can win it), I’d stop playing football now.”
The major United trumpcard, perhaps coming in the second half, may well be veteran Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He should be fit to feature at some stage in the game but defender Eric Bailly remains sidelined.
If it’s goals you’re interested, there are prolific net-busters at both ends. They have faced off 40 times in the Premier League era, with an impressive 110 goals on show – an average of 2.8 per game.
My final word: I believe the set-pieces will make the biggest difference, especially for the Red Devils to capitalise.
Corners and free kicks were where Guardiola’s Barcelona teams often seemed most vulnerable and it increasingly appears to be the case at City, too.
In the last three league games, City has conceded goals from corner situations against both Huddersfield (an unfortunate own goal from Nicolas Otamendi) and West Ham (Angelo Ogbonna’s header following a short-corner routine).
Ogbonna’s goal last weekend was the only goal that City has conceded to a header but it had been coming, with Leicester, Huddersfield and Southampton wasting great opportunities in the previous three matches from balls into the box.
Taller players have the edge in dead-ball situations. United will have a clear height advantage, which the likes of Marouane Fellaini, Nemanja Matic, Romelu Lukaku and Chris Smalling, in particular, will look to exploit.
Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist who has covered the EPL over three decades for a stable of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) newspapers. He declares he doesn’t support either of the Manchester teams. His favourite: Tottenham Hotspur.
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