Why Manchester United's slump ought to make Manchester City wary before title-deciding derby

Will <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/teams/manchester-united/" data-ylk="slk:Manchester United">Manchester United</a> respond after being blasted by manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (R), or will Pep Guardiola's <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/teams/manchester-city/" data-ylk="slk:Manchester City">Manchester City</a> win its third straight match at Old Trafford? (Stu Forster and Dan Mullan/Getty)
Will Manchester United respond after being blasted by manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (R), or will Pep Guardiola's Manchester City win its third straight match at Old Trafford? (Stu Forster and Dan Mullan/Getty)

In a funny way, Everton’s comprehensive 4-0 victory over Manchester United on Easter Sunday could actually help hand long-suffering Liverpool, the Toffees chief rival, its first English title in 30 years.

Manchester United will host its own local auld enemy, second place Manchester City, on Wednesday in a match that is almost certain to determine this season’s Premier League champion. Manchester City, which trails ‘Pool by two points, has a game in hand on the Reds — this one.

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The rest of City’s schedule is manageable after they beat Tottenham in a potential trap game on Saturday. But Pep Guardiola’s side still must travel the four miles to Old Trafford and beat a team still reeling from Sunday’s humiliation. Against that backdrop, Wednesday’s match figures to go one of two ways: Manchester United will either lay down completely or play its best match in months.

Sunday’s rout thrust United into full crisis mode; with five losses in seven games, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s honeymoon is now officially over. Solskjaer personally apologized to the Red Devils’ traveling fans at Goodison Park then roasted his players. He blasted their lack of fitness. He questioned their desire to represent England’s most successful club. Without naming names, he said flatly that some of them wouldn’t be around next year for his full first season as manager. Basically, by targeting his players’ professionalism, he compelled them to respond.

There’s no question that this Manchester United squad is deficient. They’re too old, too slow, and don’t boast even one all-world difference maker. On paper, they’re inferior at every position man-for-man when compared to City.

They’ve been particularly atrocious defensively and on current form, it’s easy to pick City to roll. The bookies already have; the odds of United winning this derby are the worst in Premier League history.

Then again, Solskjaer’s team doesn’t have to win. A point at home would be enough to deny City a second straight Premier League crown if Liverpool does as expected and wins its final three games. The humiliating nature of Manchester United’s latest defeat (and the reaction to it) means it’s now every bit as likely that the hosts will play this derby as though their careers depend on it. That doesn’t help the visitors.

Pep Guardiola’s side has established itself as the class of Manchester since United won its last title in 2013. But the derby is almost always close: five of the last six league meetings between these sides ended scoreless or were decided by a single goal. City only has a slight 3W-2L-1T advantage over the last three seasons despite the clear superiority of its roster and coaching staff.

That Wednesday’s contest will be staged across town adds another degree of difficulty for City, even if Old Trafford’s once-imposing aura has been mostly lost since legendary United manager Sir Alex Ferguson retired five years ago. Indeed, the Sky Blues have won there in each of the last two seasons.

There’s a lot more riding on this one, though. And City has to be physically and emotionally drained after the events of the last week, with the high of beating Tottenham on Saturday to keep alive their hopes of repeating as champs for the first time dulled by their elimination from the Champions League — the prize the club covets most — by Spurs just three days earlier.

City's Kevin De Bruyne will miss the Manchester Derby on Wednesday with a hamstring injury. (Rui Vieira/AP)
City's Kevin De Bruyne will miss the Manchester Derby on Wednesday with a hamstring injury. (Rui Vieira/AP)

The visitors will be short-handed on Wednesday, too; Guardiola confirmed Tuesday that Kevin de Bruyne, arguably his best player this season, would be unavailable after re-injuring his hamstring over the weekend.

Perhaps it won’t matter. Guardiola’s City is a proven commodity, a proud champion that showed immense character in ruthlessly handling business against Spurs while still grieving a crushing loss. It’s entirely possible that they’ll play United off of their own field. Either way, what for weeks has been seen as the can’t-miss match of the closest title race in years somehow just became even more intriguing.

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