If they want to keep the title race realistically alive, Manchester United need to take all three points when they host local rivals and league leaders Manchester City at Old Trafford on Sunday (16:30 GMT, live on Sky Sports).
Man City have been the class of the Premier League so far this season and currently hold a commanding eight-point lead over United. There is still plenty of the campaign left to run, but if they can maintain or extend their advantage this weekend, they would look very good for the title.
Man Utd therefore find themselves in a position that their coach Jose Mourinho is unlikely to be particularly comfortable with. His default approach in matches against other top sides is to maintain defensive solidity and then seek opportunities on the counter-attack once the game opens up. On Sunday, a low-scoring draw won’t be enough. United need to win.
In that context, it is possible that last weekend’s 3-1 victory away to Arsenal was an attempt to fine-tune a more proactive game-plan prior to the derby. United were more open at the back than they often are in such fixtures and were grateful to David de Gea for making a string of saves. Their early high press, which forced the errors that led to their first two goals, could be something they will again employ this weekend in order to disrupt City’s build-up.
But if that fixture was a test run for United’s approach, there will be one key element missing from the mix on Sunday. Paul Pogba provided two assists in a strong performance but will not be available to take on City after picking up a red card for an awkward lunge into a challenge with Hector Bellerin. A three-match ban has ruled him out of the derby.
United will clearly be weakened in his absence. It is only necessary to look at their record with and without him so far this season to see his importance. With him, they have won seven and drawn one of eight league matches; without him, they have played seven, won four, drawn one and lost two. Mourinho will at least be able to call on Nemanja Matic, who is unlikely to be 100% fit but who will nevertheless provide a steadying presence in midfield.
That is likely to be required to deal with a Man City side who have made light work of the majority of their opponents so far this season. An unbeaten record of 14 wins and one draw in the league, coupled with progress to the last 16 of the Champions League on the back of five wins and one defeat, represents an excellent start to the campaign. They’ve scored 11 more goals than any other side in the Premier League.
Last season was the first campaign of Pep Guardiola’s top-flight coaching career in which he failed to secure a single trophy, but his side’s underlying statistics were strong and suggested they would be well-primed to challenge for honours this time around. Heavy summer investment solved their remaining personnel issues and helped provide Guardiola with a squad who currently look a step above their domestic competitors.
City meted out a number of thrashings through September and October, including a 5-0 picking apart of Liverpool and a 6-0 destruction of Watford, and although they have been slightly less dominant in recent weeks, they have nevertheless continued to get the job done. Their winning streak currently stands at 13 and that is just one shy of the English top-flight record, set by Arsenal in 2002.
Only their local rivals, Man Utd, now stand in the way of them equalling that record. The two teams were both involved in Champions League action in midweek, but while United have the advantage of less travel and an extra day’s rest, City were able to spare more of their normal starters, which should more or less balance things out on Sunday.
The stage is therefore set for a competitive encounter between the best team in the Premier League this season – and the bookies’ odds-on favourites to take the EPL title – and their closest challengers. A Man Utd victory would make the title race interesting but the more likely result is one that suits City more than United: a draw.