From their best result of the season – winning 2-1 at Juventus – Manchester United face an immediate stress-test of what looks like an upswing in form. A Manchester derby at the Etihad against a City side who have scored six goals in each of their last two games; no worries there, then. City come into this game purring like a well-oiled machine, although Manchester derbies have a tendency to take the form book and fire it hard out of the nearest window, so this is a particularly tough one to call.
The Red Devils were trailing 1-0 with five minutes left, before Juan Mata scored with a direct free kick, and then swung in another set-piece from out wide, watching with delight and mirth as it pinballed in off Leonardo Bonucci’s face. That will be a difficult trick to repeat here, but United will accept any gifts going in a game where they’re still major outsiders to get anything. Still, the chance to get one over on Pep will animate Jose Mourinho in a way other games just can’t achieve, so this should be a decent game.
Manchester City vs Manchester United Prediction: Manchester City 4-2 Manchester United
There is absolutely no point in any side setting out to defend for ninety minutes against a team that have so many attacking options as Manchester City, but that doesn’t mean Jose won’t try. He is, however, a pragmatist and must realise that getting the ball to his own attacking players is a better idea than relying on Viktor Lindelof to go an entire match without making a mistake, so we should see two sides ready to go forward here. City may not score six for a third consecutive match (although it’s far from out of the question), but we see this game being high-scoring with a frisson of controversy.
Our recommended tip: BTTS
This game feels like the least likely match ever to end goalless – although we thought that about City’s trip to Liverpool so it is possible that we know nothing. The fans don’t like one another, the managers have a largely one-sided, but still mutual, dislike. There will be something of a “kick everything that moves, and if it doesn’t move, kick it until it does” vibe here, and the game is liable to lose shape. When that happens, goals have a habit of following, and with Ladbrokes offering ¾ (1.75) on both teams netting, we’d be astonished if the age-old mantra of “We’re going to score more than you” didn’t decide things.
The last time these sides met, in early April, City just needed to win to seal the league title. Thirty minutes in, they led 2-0 through Vincent Kompany and Ilkay Gundogan. At half-time, Mourinho realised that he didn’t want to have to congratulate Pep live on camera, and United came out like a side transformed. Two goals in three minutes from Paul Pogba pulled United level on 55, and then a 69th-minute finish from Chris Smalling – who had made a hash of marking Kompany for the opener – secured an unforeseen win for the visitors.
In the prior, less eventful, game, David Silva opened the scoring for City just before half-time, and Marcus Rashford fired in an equaliser even more just before half-time. The game was settled, though, by Nicolas Otamendi’s 54th-minute strike after United miserably failed to clear a corner.
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Players to watch: Raheem Sterling & Juan Mata
With the level of criticism that Sterling experienced over the summer – much of it nothing to do with football, and deeply ugly and personal – no-one could blame him for wanting to leave it all behind and move somewhere with fewer idiotic columnists. However, in the past week he has scored twice against Southampton, inspired a 6-0 drubbing of Shakhtar, and signed a new three-year contract at the Etihad. He’s playing with freedom, making a huge contribution for club and country, and is frankly a joy to watch right now.
Mata never really seemed to fit into Jose Mourinho’s plans at Chelsea, and must have felt a sinking feeling when, two years into his United career, his new club hired his old manager. However, the Spaniard has proven to be one of those players who gives a supreme level of performance on a regular basis in a team that could do with a few more. His free-kicks bamboozled Juventus (poor Leo Bonucci…), and if United are to get anything here, they’ll need Mata to drive them forward again. If he doesn’t, it won’t be for want of effort.