It wasn’t long ago that Sunday’s Manchester derby was being billed as a decisive match in terms of the destination of the Premier League title.
Now it’s shaping up to be a virtual coronation.
The divergence in fortunes of City and United over the past five weeks — they were separated by just a point at the top of the standings on Jan. 27 — has been dramatic.
City hasn’t lost a match in any competition in that period and is riding a record 21-game winning run that has pushed Pep Guardiola’s team into a 14-point lead.
Second-place United, meanwhile, has won just two of its eight league matches in that time and its attacking game has sputtered to a halt, the last three matches played by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side finishing 0-0.
“They always get good results here at the Etihad Stadium but we know the opportunity we have to extend our advantage,” Guardiola said Friday.
Squad strength, and the respective managers’ utilization of it, has played a key role.
United’s players, to put it bluntly, look shot after playing games every three or four days since the start of the season owing to their involvement in the Europa League and going deep in both domestic cup competitions.
Marcus Rashford, for example, has played a part in each of the team’s last 30 games dating back to Nov. 21. Bruno Fernandes, the star playmaker, has missed just one of those matches — a win in the FA Cup over second-tier Watford on Jan. 9 when he was an unused substitute.
Quite why Solskjaer deemed it necessary to give both players 45 minutes in the second leg of the last-32 match against Real Sociedad in the Europa League last week, with United already leading 4-0 from the first game, is a relevant question.
Rashford and Fernandes were visibly off their game in the goalless draw at Crystal Palace on Wednesday. Naturally, both played the full 90 minutes, highlighting Solskjaer’s dependence on certain individuals.
This is where City and Guardiola differ, and it might be why the team has managed to come through the grueling schedule so well.
There’s no denying City has the best and deepest squad in the league — it didn’t go unnoticed that Guardiola had $500 million worth of talent on his bench for the 2-1 win over West Ham on Saturday — but he can fall back on a settled style developed over years as well as a structure that does not rely on one individual and can operate at a high level whichever players slot in at a given time.
It’s why City barely missed Kevin De Bruyne when the Belgium midfielder was recently out for a month with a hamstring injury. Guardiola found other solutions. It’s why City has managed to stay on course for a quadruple this season despite its best striker, Sergio Aguero, starting just four games in all competitions because of injuries.
Again, Guardiola has eventually solved the problem, often playing without a striker but still seeing the goals fly in.
United will be without goalkeeper David De Gea, who is taking time off for the birth of his daughter, Solskjaer confirmed Friday.
Meanwhile, Guardiola said defender Nathan Ake is healthy and available for selection.
City has the better squad and a vastly more experienced and tactically astute manager. What has happened over the past five weeks should, therefore, come as no surprise.
That doesn’t mean the result on Sunday is a foregone conclusion, especially since United is unbeaten in 21 away games stretching back to January last year. A 0-0 draw would not be unexpected — that was the result in the derby at Old Trafford in December and was also the score when United played Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea in the league since the turn of the year.
“I know how difficult United are," Guardiola said. “I have the feeling they are a better team every season. They haven’t lost away for more than one year. They are now real contenders, second in the table.”
Guardiola has spoken openly about how United has hurt City in recent seasons with its pace on the counterattack, so don’t expect the leaders to open up at the Etihad Stadium. A 0-0 draw would end City’s extraordinary winning run but wouldn’t be the worst result for the team.
Solskjaer would likely take it, too, though it would mean more dropped points and a chance for United’s growing band of top-four rivals to close the gap in what is fast becoming a crowded race for Champions League qualification.
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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80
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