It’s Manchester derby time

Ronaldo (right) and Sancho hope for more to be thankful for today. — Reuters

MANCHESTER United are in a much better place today than they were a fortnight ago, so much so that some Red Devils are even discussing the possibility of them upending City in the derby.Of course, they have the resources to do just that and should they pull it off, it would be a massive morale boost for team boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

The Norwegian has been under some serious pressure lately, particularly after the drubbing they received at the hands of Liverpool two weeks ago.

But since then, Man United have bounced back with a little swagger, borne mostly from the heroics of Cristiano Ronaldo.

A comfortable league victory over Tottenham last weekend and fight back to draw with Atalanta in the Champions League in midweek have certainly lifted the gloom that engulfed Old Trafford and helped to some extent quell the speculation surrounding Solskjaer’s tenure.

We know now that Alex Ferguson saw to it that Solskjaer be given a reprieve and a bit more time to sort things out for a side that has not won the league title since 2013, the same season the Scot retired. In the intervening years, City won the Premier League four times.

As odd as it may sound, City have not beaten the Red Devils in a Manchester derby in the Premiership over the past two seasons.

Of those four games, Man United won three and conceded only one goal, in their 2-1 win at the Etihad in December 2019.

If Solskjaer is going to maintain that sequence in today’s early kick-off, he will have to do it without central defender Raphael Varane and perhaps employ a back-three again, assisted by the two wing-backs operating down the flanks.

Varane has been ruled out for about a month, having limped off at Atalanta with a hamstring injury.

He had only just returned to action from sitting on the sidelines injured. Without the Frenchman, Man United have noticeably suffered in defence.

Using a three-strong back-line against Spurs last weekend proved hugely profitable for Solskjaer and he might well opt to go that way again. It would not surprise many.

What has surprised more than just a few folks is how sparingly Solskjaer has used Jadon Sancho.

The England midfielder, who arrived at Old Trafford from German Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund in a £73mil (RM410mil) transfer in the off season, has sadly started on the bench in nine of their last 11 matches across all competitions.

And to rub salt into the wound, Sancho was left out of England’s squad this week for this month’s World Cup qualifiers against Albania and San Marino.

In contrast, his Man United teammate and friend Marcus Rashford was recalled, having recently returned from injury.

Man City will not bother in the slightest about whom they face today. Their attention will solely focus on putting up determined resistance against their bitter cross-town rivals.

Man City, who are third in the league standings, stumbled to an upset defeat by Crystal Palace on the same day Man United saw off Tottenham.

With this, there is no doubt that Pep Guardiola will be bent on getting back to winning ways and resuming their title defence with the same rigour that they so consistently displayed last season.

The Citizens might have been a bit sloppy against Palace last Saturday, but in midweek they were super sleek. They thumped Belgian outfit Club Brugge 4-1 in the Champions League.

In that group stage match at the Etihad, Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez, Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus were all on the score sheet.

If they do it again today, Solskjaer may well be shown the exit door and all that talk about silencing their “noisy neighbours” will count for nothing.

But if Man United do get it right and consign Guardiola to a third league defeat with less a third of the season gone by, the Old Trafford singing will significantly grow louder, hopefully not about winning the title – well, not just yet anyway.

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