The first week of a new year feels like the wrong time to hold the semi-final of anything, but tonight’s Manchester derby at Old Trafford will go some way to deciding whether Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United side or Pep Guardiola and his underperforming City will make the Carabao Cup final. City, the defending champions, have fallen so far behind Premier League leaders Liverpool that this remains their greatest realistic chance of domestic silverware in 2020 while, for United, a trip to Wembley at the beginning of March would be a sign that some progress was being made amid a few seasons in which consistency has been absent.
The hosts come into this game with an injury list that is beginning to take on “biblical curse” proportions. The collection of players likely to miss this game would, in itself, make for a pretty decent team (albeit one without a goalkeeper). That doesn’t sound positive for United’s hopes of repeating the 2-1 win achieved the last time the sides played out a derby – especially as the visitors have an almost entirely clean bill of health. Only winger Leroy Sane has not trained in advance of this fixture, although Basque centre-half Aymeric Laporte is unlikely to see any action after a long spell out through injury.
Goals expected in absorbing encounter
Before Manchester City landed Brazilian goalkeeper Ederson, they had developed a recurring habit of conceding the first goal in games under Guardiola – an issue he identified as being the cause behind his tricky first season in English football. Those with cruel streaks pointed out that the common factor in all of those first goals was that they were usually from the opposition’s first attempt on target, and they were all flying past Claudio Bravo, the former Barcelona stopper signed by Pep from his old club. While the gaffer enjoys playing with a sweeper-keeper, starting attacks from the deepest line of defence, it has seemed that Bravo is more sweeper than keeper.
While many people might see that as a reason to drop the offending player, things are different when you’re Guardiola. Bravo is the Citizens’ dedicated keeper for cup games, and this is a cup game. It would therefore be something of a surprise if City kept a clean sheet this evening. Of course, being Manchester City they’re also likely to do the job at the other end and we can expect a high-scoring game this evening. With Unibet, there are odds of 17/10 that there will be more than 3.5 goals across the 90 minutes. Those are certainly worth taking in what could be a chaotic match.
United the underdogs, even at home
Fans with a few decades behind them will remember a time when Manchester City were very much the poor relations in this rivalry. Indeed, in the same season that United won the League-Cup-Champions League treble, City themselves enjoyed a trip to Wembley – beating Gillingham on penalties to secure promotion from what was then called Division Two (now League One). If you were able to go back in time and tell the two sets of fans how things would be looking in 2020, both groups would laugh at you for seriously differing reasons.
Imagine telling those fans that, on the first Tuesday of the third decade of the coming century, Manchester United would host City in a cup tie and somehow be 4/1 underdogs with Ladbrokes. And yet, that is the case even though City have been turned over this season by Norwich, Wolves twice and United themselves. It’s a bit of an insult to the hosts here and, especially in a two-leg tie, it might be an error on the bookies’ part. An early goal for United, added to the knowledge that City don’t need to chase the game, could result in a surprise home win.
Bet on chaos after a busy December
Neither of these sides had much time to rest on their laurels as the last decade came to an end – a furious pace of fixtures meant that December was a time of highs followed by lows, along with injuries, squad rotation and plenty more besides. As the first weekend of the year offered FA Cup action, there was even more confusion to deal with, and the chaos of 2019’s final month has spilled over into the first week of 2020, making everything a little harder to predict. Then you need to consider that, as per the first rule of football cliche, “the form book always goes out the window in a derby”.
Predicting this game feels a lot like a fool’s errand – for all the above reasons and more. If you were of a mind to take a punt on the night’s action, you could probably do worse than backing United to win with both teams scoring. That can be found at 13/2 with Paddy Power, very interesting odds indeed considering the unsettled state of play at the present time.
Bets of the Day
Over 3.5 goals (Unibet, 17/10); United win and BTTS (Paddy Power, 13/2); United win (Ladbrokes, 4/1)