Manchester City and Manchester United meet at the Etihad Stadium this weekend with both sides chasing Champions League qualification (4pm Sunday, Sky Sports 1).
City were still in touch at the top of the Premier League table a few short weeks ago, but a run of just one win in five games has left them nervously looking over their shoulders at their local rivals and West Ham United below them.
It has been another underwhelming campaign for Manuel Pellegrini’s outfit, who are likely to have little more than a Capital One Cup trophy to show for their heavy expenditure last summer, which saw the likes of Nicolas Otamendi, Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne and Fabian Delph join the two-time Premier League champions for close to £150 million. There is more than enough quality in their squad for City to comfortably hold on to their top-four placing, but their recent form must be a worry for the club’s supporters.
United have also been disappointing of late, away defeats to Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion costing them valuable points in the race for the Champions League. Louis van Gaal (pictured) is likely to depart Old Trafford this summer regardless of where United finish, but leading the Red Devils into Europe’s primary continental club competition for a second year running would at least allow him to leave on something of a positive note. Whether United have enough about them to overhaul the four-point margin separating them from City remains to be seen, but the players may respond well to the fact that they are no longer expected to end the campaign in fourth.
Pellegrini is likely to have to make do without defensive duo Vincent Kompany (calf) and Otamendi (knee), who were both withdrawn in the first half of the 0-0 draw with Dynamo Kyiv in the Champions League round of 16 second leg on Tuesday. Delph also remains sidelined with an achilles problem, while De Bruyne and Samir Nasri are still at least a couple of weeks away from recovering from their respective knee and hamstring issues. Pellegrini will have to decide whether to employ a 4-4-2 formation with both Sergio Aguero and Wilfried Bony up front or a 4-2-3-1 with the Ivory Coast international on the bench. Given that this is a big game against a local and direct rival, the Chilean will probably opt for the latter formation.
Van Gaal, meanwhile, will be unable to call upon the services of captain Wayne Rooney (knee), Phil Jones (ankle), Luke Shaw (broken leg) and Will Keane (groin), although Ashley Young and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson have returned to training and could be involved. Teenage star Marcus Rashford is likely to retain his place in the starting XI, while Bastian Schweinsteiger is competing with Morgan Schneiderlin, Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera and Maraoune Fellaini for a spot in the Red Devils’ midfield.
Sunday’s clash should be an entertaining encounter given that there is an awful lot at stake for the two clubs, even if both have seen better times in previous years. A place in the top four was seen as the minimum target for both City and United at the start of the season. Given the sizeable margins currently separating them from the top two, neither side is likely to achieve anything more than Champions League qualification this term.
Overall, City’s additional firepower is likely to make the difference against a United side who have scored more than once away from home in only one league game since November. A 2-1 City victory looks worth backing, with the hosts likely to grab the game’s decisive goal after the half-time interval.