MANCHESTER UTD vs MANCHESTER CITY
Saturday 14th December, 12:30pm
Man Utd @ 3/1
Man City @ 17/20
Draw @ 14/5
This season is beginning to look like a tale of two Cities.
There is the Manchester City that is free-scoring. That can plan, create, and execute every possible kind of goal. That managed to score 20 of them in the first 6 Premier League games of the season. That can maintain possession better than any other English team in history. And can implement a brand of slick, steely, vice-like dominance on a fixture that makes the opposing players feel like quitting football altogether and having a go at pig-farming instead.
Then there is the other Manchester City. A team that, as a consequence of managerial over-thinking and tactical 4D chess, almost grinds to a halt. That despite featuring some of most expensive and successful players in world football still seems curiously short on leaders. And a team that this season has dropped points against Steven Gerrard’s floundering Aston Villa, Frank Lampard’s teetering Everton, and were decisively knocked out of the Carabao Cup this week by bottom of the table Southampton.
In what was a grim apotheosis for this incarnation of Manchester City, they also failed to muster a single shot on target in their battle against the lowly Saints – the first time this has happened in some 275 matches.
Whether the former City can be quickly rebuilt, and its previous level of excellence successfully maintained, could determine the destination of this season’s biggest trophies. It will need to be a speedy resuscitation too, because an in-form Manchester United await in the 12:30pm kick-off on Saturday.
Which of the two Cities will turn up at Old Trafford? What does the tale of the tape tell us?
Well, along with Fulham, Manchester United are the only side to have won their last four Premier League matches.
Since the re-start, they have augmented this quartet of victories with advances in both the FA and Carabao Cups. And they have only conceded one goal since mid-November.
In Marcus Rashford Manchester United have a player who appears to be discovering a new, rarefied echelon of form. Goals aren’t being painstakingly forged over the course of long, gruelling shifts for the Wythenshawe forward; they are landing at his feet fully-formed, bereft of effort, and gleaming.
Erik ten Hag will know his side are far from the finished article; that there are still a few square pegs stuffed into cylinders. But he will also know that when you have a player at your disposal so fizzing-hot with confidence, sometimes all you have to do is wind them up, push them out onto the pitch, and assume they will deal with the matter at hand.
The post-World Cup Manchester United have, however, only won fixtures they would normally be expected to win; Saturday will indicate precisely how great their expectations for the rest of the season really ought to be.
A second major city is also hosting a potentially pivotal derby this weekend – Tottenham Hotspur meet Arsenal in a 4:30pm start on Sunday.
This fixture is a traditional, fiery tale of underachievement, oscillating jealousy, and highly sought-after bagging rights. An intriguing new sub-plot has just emerged, however: which of the respective club managers will present the most hysterical, histrionic touchline demeanour on the day?
Previously this contest would be Antonio Conte’s to lose – nobody does operatic, pitch-side volatility quite like the Italians. But this season, Arsenal are in the ascendency all over the pitch. And Mikel Arteta has just unveiled a brand-new catalogue of petulant gestures and gymnastic fourth official abuse. There is genuinely no contest he doesn’t feel he can win right now.
So we have before us a tantalising tale of two big clashes in two big cities. But for whom will this weekend represent the best of times, and for whom the worst of times? Will this weekend kick-start a season of light for the victors, and a season of darkness for the losers?