Manchester City and Manchester United will compete in the 188th Manchester derby at the Etihad on Sunday, live on Sky Sports. Ahead of the huge Premier League clash, we discuss the key battles.
State of play ahead of kick-off
Five points separate champions City and United ahead of the season’s first meeting between the rivals, but Erik ten Hag’s side have a game in hand.
City have five wins and two draws from their seven fixtures so far this season, giving them a total of 17 points. After losing their opening two games, United have won their past four to give them 12 points from six matches.
Can Varane and Martinez stop Haaland?
City have scored 23 goals in the Premier League so far this season, more than any other side. Erling Haaland has scored almost half of those (11).
The 22-year-old, who has found the net 14 times in all competitions since joining from Borussia Dortmund, is likely to come up against Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez on Sunday. Manchester United’s new centre-back pairing has been key to their recent mini-revival, but there is no tougher test in football right now than facing the world’s most prolific No 9.
City scored 99 goals in the league last season on their way to the title, and that was without Haaland. They hit United for four in the previous derby back in March.
Seven months later, though, a lot has changed at Old Trafford. The arrivals of a new manager and new players have breathed new life into the red side of Manchester, while a run of four consecutive wins after a disastrous start to the campaign has transformed the mood at the club. It is no coincidence United’s sudden turnaround in form has happened with Varane and Martinez at the heart of their defence.
Much has been made of Martinez’s height at 5ft 9in, but the stats suggest there has been a fuss about nothing. As United kept their first clean sheet of the season against Southampton in August, the Argentine won five out of five aerial duels and had a 100 per cent ground duel success rate.
He has also faced Haaland before – and kept him quiet. Despite standing at 6ft 4in – seven inches taller than Martinez – the Norwegian was unable to find the target as Borussia Dortmund lost 4-0 to Ajax in the Champions League last October.
As well as his passionate and aggressive nature, Martinez is an intelligent footballer. But every central defender needs a reliable partner and alongside him, Varane has looked back to his commanding best.
Their performances have kept United captain Harry Maguire on the bench, and they will be keen to strengthen their position as Ten Hag’s first-choice defensive duo by thwarting an almost invincible Haaland at the Etihad. How the City forward plans to outsmart them will be a fascinating watch.
Will De Bruyne have too much for McTominay?
While Varane and Martinez have rightfully earned plenty of plaudits in recent weeks, Scott McTominay’s improved performances have also contributed to United’s upturn in results.
Despite calls from supporters to drop him at the beginning of the season, McTominay has answered his critics impressively and is currently Ten Hag’s preferred player to protect the back four. Keeping a £70m defensive midfielder in Casemiro on the bench is a testament to how well the Scotland international is playing.
McTominay has been excellent throughout United’s four-game winning run, but Sunday’s derby poses a daunting challenge. There is arguably none more difficult than trying to stop Kevin De Bruyne.
The Belgian was instrumental as City kept their undefeated start to the season by beating Wolves 3-0 before the international break.
He picked up two assists at Molineux to take his tally in the Premier League to 92 – the same number as Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard managed in more than twice as many games. De Bruyne leads the way in the league this season with six in seven games.
Is there a better midfielder in world football right now? That’s what McTominay is up against.
Grealish to give Dalot reality check?
Diogo Dalot is in the form of his life. The Portugal international established himself as United’s first-choice right-back last season under interim boss Ralf Rangnick and has continued to hold down that position under new manager Ten Hag.
He has been an ever-present in the league this term and has arguably been United’s most improved player under the Dutchman. His impressive form has even led to discussions over a new long-term contract at Old Trafford.
Dalot underlined his attacking credentials by scoring twice in Portugal’s recent 4-0 win over the Czech Republic, but it is his defensive resolve that will be tested the most on Sunday when he is likely to come up against Jack Grealish.
Despite admitting he has not been at his best since joining from Aston Villa for £100m last year, Grealish has started three games in a row in all competitions on the left-hand side of City’s attack and scored his first goal of the season against Wolves last time out.
It will be no surprise if he was to take up that position for the champions again on Sunday and Dalot will need to be prepared for a different type of challenge. His defensive intelligence is sure to be tested against someone of Grealish’s technical quality, while the 23-year-old’s trademark marauding runs forward will need to be carried out with more caution and precision at the Etihad.
Sancho can prove point to Southgate
Another player benefitting from playing under Ten Hag is Jadon Sancho. The winger played a key role as part of a fluid forward line in pre-season and has carried those impressive performances into the new campaign. He has three goals in eight matches this season. It had taken him 24 games to do that last term.
The 22-year-old has rediscovered the form that convinced United to pay £73m to sign him from Borussia Dortmund last summer, but his recent displays are yet to convince everyone. He was left out of Gareth Southgate’s latest England squad for the Nations League matches against Italy and Germany.
Sunday, though, presents him with perhaps one last opportunity to force Southgate’s hand before he names his World Cup squad next month. Getting the better of England’s best right-back in Kyle Walker could do just that. Such a performance would make it almost impossible for the Three Lions boss to ignore.
But overcoming Walker is an almighty task. Since joining City in 2017, the England international has transformed into perhaps the best defensive full-back in world football. Eden Hazard, Neymar and Bukayo Saka have all described Walker as one of the toughest opponents they’ve faced.
The 32-year-old’s excellent recovery pace and ability to defend one-on-one situations make his potential battle with Sancho perhaps the most interesting one, given United’s tendency to hit teams on the counter-attack.
Although Sancho scored against Walker and City back in March when Rangnick was in charge, he is undoubtedly playing with more confidence under Ten Hag. Sunday’s fixture will show just how much he has improved.