Bastian Schweinsteiger puts in a tackle against Manchester City in the 0-0 draw earlier in the season
In what was once an epic clash for the league title, the Manchester derby has now been replaced with the battle for fourth spot and Champions League qualification. Manchester City, who head in to the derby fifteen points off league leaders Leicester City and comfortably in the quarter finals of the Champions League, have had a poor run of form against top half of the table teams and must pick up all three points today if indeed Manuel Pellegrini is to add to his one league winners medal in what is his season finale at The Etihad.
Louis van Gaal looks again to be on borrowed time, which we have discussed on so many occasions throughout the season, with reports suggesting that the club has signed a pre-contract agreement with Jose Mourinho – who is still jobless following his dismissal at Chelsea earlier in the season. United come into the game off the back of a limp exit to Liverpool in the Europa League – the club’s first defeat to English opposition in Europe. van Gaal hasn’t won an league away game since the 1-0 victory over United’s Europa League conquerors – with Wayne Rooney scoring a late undeserved winner.
The away side are missing Wayne Rooney, Luke Shaw and Phil Jones – whilst Ashley Young and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson are back in training, but are unlikely to start. Juan Mata is back in contention following his dismissal in the 1-0 defeat away at WBA two weeks ago. Manchester City will be without club captain Vincent Kompany – who picked up a calf injury against Dynamo Kiev, whilst Nicolas Otamendi will be assessed ahead of the game.
We are joined by lifelong Manchester City fan, Rick Martin, who answered a few questions ahead of the game for us. We discussed the impact of Pep Guardiola’s impending arrival, how Pellegrini will be remembered at City and what City fans think of Louis van Gaal’s time at Old Trafford. You can follow Rick on Twitter @rm23286.
1) How would you sum up Manchester City’s season so far? Are you happy with progress?
It’s actually too early to say given that City, unlike United, are still in the running for a major trophy. You can’t consider City as anything other than rank outsiders in the Champions League but obviously the draw could have been tougher than PSG – this is a club that plays very few competitive games given how comparatively poor Ligue 1. I don’t think any season where City wins a major trophy – and I do count the League Cup as that – can be seen as a total failure but expectations are so high these days that their Premier League performance can only be considered as well below par. Not getting into the top 4 would be an absolute disaster with Guardiola coming in. That said, I see attracting Guardiola in itself as progress, considering I remember the days when Alan Ball, Steve Coppell and Frank Clark all sat in the dugout in one season. He very well could have gone to United – and the noises he’s been making about coming to England in recent years suggests he may well have considered it – and it speaks volumes that he’s coming to City instead.
2) How will Manuel Pellegrini’s reign be remembered at City?
Opinion is split on Pelligrini’s reign among City fans – wrongly in my opinion – but I’m hugely appreciative of what he’s done. The This Charming Man banner at the Etihad sums up how many City fans feel about Manuel. He took on a club that had gone to the next level and started winning things, but clearly had a fractious dressing room – big personalities like Balotelli and Tevez who were world class but could be more trouble than they were worth. It’s pretty common knowledge that Mancini had a fiery relationship with the players and that wasn’t sustainable in the long term (although for me he’s City’s greatest manager of all time in the way he took them to a title-winning level). It’s also common knowledge that Pelligrini is well-liked among the squad – you can tell he’s respected and the players like playing for him.
City have always played attractive attacking football while he’s been manager. You could argue that he’s ending on a poor season but, for reasons I don’t fully understand – I’m sure there’s a football brain at the Etihad far more powerful than my own able to answer this – City simply haven’t got a big enough squad this season to compete properly, even if they’ve been badly hit by injuries. For example in attack they’ve gone from having options like Jovetic and Dzeko (admittedly I’d have happily driven both to their next club as both seemed disruptive and weren’t consistent enough) to relying on injury-prone (but world class) Aguero, promising but inexperienced Iheanacho and Wilfried Bony, who has been a disaster of a signing (not helped by him getting Malaria last summer, admittedly). Signings like Mangala and Navas simply haven’t looked at City’s level. I don’t think Pelligrini has full control over transfers so therefore can’t be blamed.
He was given a target of five trophies in five years – he’s likely to end with three. As City fans we should never forget what it was like to win nothing for over 30 years and have United fans taking the piss – a trophy most seasons is more than enough for me. Pelligrini’s also handled the transition to Guardiola better than I’ve seen any manager in his position do – but then what else would you expect from This Charming Man?
3) Do you feel that the announcement of the impending arrival of Pep Guardiola has impacted your season?
I think it has had an impact, but not as much as injuries have. It goes without saying that Kompany holds the back four together (and would at most clubs) and the goal difference stats on when he does/doesn’t play have been well documented. David Silva has been playing with pain-killing injections and thus has been off the pace. Obviously Sergio has had his customary spells out of the team. Although I’ve read countless books on what it’s like to be a footballer I’ve sadly never been one and it’s hard to truly know how this sort of announcement affects a club behind the scenes, especially one that looks as well run as City these days. But ultimately if getting the world’s top manager in for three years derails one season where they’ve already won a trophy, I think that’s a gamble worth making (although one that will backfire massively if they don’t make it into the top 4). I think even Pelligrini was supportive of it because he’s intelligent enough to know that someone like Pep can really kick a team onto the very top level. I did wonder if Manuel might stay on and “go upstairs” at City but he’s probably got one more big job in him somewhere in Europe.
4) What changes do you foresee under Guardiola? Which players will leave?
I think the squad would have had an overhaul anyway and the only reason it didn’t in either transfer window because they knew Pep was probably coming in and would want to shape the team in his own image. I think the spine of the team will remain – Hart, Kompany, Silva, Aguero – as will De Bruyne and Sterling (although the latter will need to kick on – more on this later) as you cannot change an entire squad and identity overnight. Pep will definitely buy new full backs and I expect Clichy and Zabaleta to move on (both could still do a job at top clubs). Sagna and Kolarov will stay for another year I think, but only as squad players. Yaya Toure will almost definitely move on and it’s the right time for him to go – he should get one more big payday in and buy himself a load of birthday cakes with the cash before he’s too old to justify the signing on fee. I wouldn’t to see him stay and slip even further in terms of performances – he leaves as the man who’s scored more important goals for the club than anyone in their history, not least that barnstorming run and finish against United in the FA Cup Semi Final in 2009. Bony, Demichelis, Fernando, Mangala, Navas and Nasri will all leave (in that order of importance) and it remains to be seen if Fernandinho, Delph and Otamendi fit into Pep’s plans – the latter has all the attributes to be a top player but makes terrible decisions when it comes to trying to win the ball higher up the field. Delph has looked good when he’s not been injured and Fernandinho has had his best season for City this year.
If there’s one thing City have lacked above all else this season it’s energy – for example, they’ve been taken apart by Liverpool home and away for this reason and were fortunate to grind out a win in the League Cup final. So that’s what I expect Pep to instil with his signings – super-fit players who can press all over the pitch. He’s got a reputation for converting holding midfielders into centre halves – Mascherano at Barca for example – so I’d expect this to happen at City. It sounds obvious, but Pogba would be a good replacement for Yaya in terms of midfield power and goal threat, and I expect to see two world class attacking full backs installed (Alba or Alaba would do). And in attack – who knows if he could tempt one of Barca’s holy trinity to a new challenge? Or Muller and/or Lewandowski. Frankly, I don’t think Pep would be coming if he hadn’t been given the nod from the Sheik that he could go out and spend big and, more importantly, the nod from agents that a handful of world stars will be willing to come with him. As a result, I think you’ll see City break into the top tier of European clubs over the next three years.
5) How was your sum up Manchester United’s season? Has Louis van Gaal improved fortunes in his two seasons at the club?
Sometimes I can barely believe what I’m seeing with United these days. Is this how you lot felt when you were singing those daft “this is how it feels to be City” chants and ruling the roost in Manchester back in the day? I don’t think any United – or football – fan could have predicted how far and quickly United would fall after Fergie retired. The style of football is terrible – what happened to ‘attack, attack, attack’? Are you not embarrassed when United play long ball to Fellaini as the only means of grinding out a win? Some of the signings make little sense – everyone could see Schweinstiger was well over the hill before he came. Martial is promising but not someone to bank on for 20 goals. Selling Welbeck to one of your big rivals was nonsensical, especially given Rooney is past his peak and has struggled for form and fitness. De Gea and probably Smalling are the only two players I think would get anywhere near any of the classic United sides of the ‘90s and ‘00s. Van Gaal has become a joke figure and not just because of his oddly shaped head – and long may that continue.
6) Can Manchester City win the Champions League? Who will win the league?
I can’t pretend it’s anything other than pretty unlikely. Barca are on a different planet to anyone else at the moment and Bayern and Real are still a level above City. Whether City can beat PSG and get to the last four depends on the state of the squad when those games come around – Kompany will be out, but who else will be injured by then? One thing I do think is worth considering is that of all the teams left, Atletico might have the best shot at beating Barca – as they know them well from La Liga. Assuming this happens, City are then looking at beating two of Atletico, Bayern and Real to win it, which with the current squad is unlikely. At the same time, there are world class players in City’s team and they’ve definitely saved their best performances for Europe this season – Yaya seems to turn it on more and Sterling and Fernandinho have both had their best games in the Champions League.
As for the Premier League, it’s taken me a while to come round to the idea Leicester will win it but I think given they’ve just ground out another 1-0 today it’s looking inevitable. Maybe it’s not as surprising as everyone thinks, given they’ve got a top manager in Ranieri and a great spine – Kasper, Drinkwater, Kante, Mahrez and Vardy could play for any team in the Premier League.
7) How have Kevin De Bryune and Rahem Sterling done in their first season at the club?
De Bruyne got up to speed very quickly and looks a quality player – I can see him playing a key role in Pep’s City team given Bayern were apparently trying to sign him last summer before he came to City. His form dipped towards the second half of the season and he could go missing in away games (insert rainy night at Stoke cliché here), but I think some of that was reacclimatising to the Premier League and being relied on quite heavily for creativity while Silva was out injured.
As for Sterling, I take a pragmatic view to the criticism that’s been levelled at him. What City have bought is potential and people easily forget he’s only 21. None of Europe’s top players – Ronaldo, Messi, Bale – were doing it consistently at the top level at 20/21 (maybe you can argue Muller was). He’s shown flashes of world class ability at key points in the season – Sevilla away sticks out – but he’s also been ineffective in games where he’s been wasteful in possession and struggled to get in behind savvy full backs. What I do like about him is his maturity for a player his age – his positional sense is fantastic, he’s formed good relationships with City’s full backs – he rarely gets caught out and covers well – and he doesn’t hide when he or the team aren’t playing well). I predict Pep will better define his role in the team and that might involve moving more into the middle – he scored a hattrick against Bournemouth when played there earlier this season. He’s got to kick on from this season though and that will come down to how Pep sets the team up and his attitude.
8) Can Manchester United still qualify for the Champions League next season?
I hope not. And it’s still a source of amusement when a club of United’s size and stature fails to that degree. I think a lot depends on how the derby goes tomorrow. If City win it effectively closes the door on United and I think they’re locked in a battle with West Ham to qualify for the Europa League, which seems to have become the target competition for the Reds in recent years. But the way City are playing, I’m quite nervous about the derby. United are a dangerous underdog with aerial weapons that can hurt this City back four. If City lose I expect West Ham to secure Champions League qualification though, not United.
9) If Louis van Gaal does not keep his job – who can you see taking over?
Van Gaal will lose his job. I suspect that the hierarchy at United are nervous about bringing Mourinho in as he’s someone that wants total control and brings a circus with him. Would he clash with Fergie, given he’s still knocking around upstairs? Otherwise the best top level manager out there is Simeone at Atletico, but would he want to come (there’s also the Beckham connection to consider there)? I’d like to see the Class of ’92 take over as the first ever 5 joint managers – the Nevilles, Scholes, Giggs and Nicky Butt – merge the club with Salford City (meaning United will finally be playing in their home city) and start the season in the Conference North due to an administrative error. Failing that, Brendan Rodgers.
10) What is your all time Manchester City Xi?
This all-time City X1 is based on players from my lifetime, rather than players from the ‘60s and ’70s I’ve watched on YouTube clips and read about (obviously, Bell, Lee, Summerbee, Doyle etc would get in if it was).
Hart, Zabaleta, Kompany, Andy Morrison (if he hadn’t dragged City out of Div 2 by the bootstraps back in ’98 they wouldn’t be where they are now), Tiatto (ditto); Silva, Yaya, Benarbia, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Aguero, Tevez. Subs: Weaver (26 clean sheets in debut season), Dunne, Richards, Kinkladze, Goater, Dickov, Rosler