Cautious Van Gaal makes City favourites for derby honours
It is a sign of the status that Louis van Gaal enjoys at Manchester United - and evidently an indication of the new reality that surrounds this rivalry which has become noisy again - that when he declared that Manchester City are the "favourites" in the 170th derby between the two clubs, there was not the slightest murmur of protest.
Imagine if Van Gaal's predecessor David Moyes had made such a candid admission? Moyes did just that ahead of a fixture during his moribund time in charge of United against Liverpool.
"They possibly do come here as favourites," Moyes said in March 2014. He lost and lasted just eight more matches.
Van Gaal is under no such pressure although his cautious mood yesterday was informed by two hugely differing results: United beat City 4-2 last April, arresting a calamitous slide of four derby defeats, and he celebrated on the town as if a trophy had been captured.
But United won only one of their final six matches after that fixture to finish fourth while City rallied to claim second place.
Van Gaal said yesterday that United had expended too much "energy" - possibly meaning emotional as well as physical - in beating City.
Then United hit the front in the Premier League before the recent fixture away to Arsenal, only to be dismantled 3-0 when, tactically, Van Gaal, despite his protestations, got it all wrong. So he is circumspect.
"We have started very well when you compare it with last year but when we compare with Manchester City we are two points behind," Van Gaal said ruefully.
A convincing victory at Everton and a draw against CSKA in Moscow in the Champions League - with Van Gaal railing against the fixture vagaries that set such a taxing encounter before a table-topping derby - have restored a sense of equilibrium but the manager is acutely aware that could be disturbed again if City triumph at Old Trafford.
"You have to ask the fans," Van Gaal said. "It's not so important who is the favourite.
"When you look at the facts they are first and we are second or third.
"There's a goal difference (City have plus 16, United plus seven), a point difference, so they are the favourites, I think.
"For me, it is not an issue. I have to do my work. You have to do your work more rationally and not emotionally. I think for the fans it's very emotional.
"I live in a little village and there it is also the talk of the town. I think in Manchester, it is more.
"We have to do our work and prepare our game . . . we have to hope we beat Manchester City."
Hope, rather than expect. Too much can be read into the use of one word but there is an air of caution around Van Gaal, who did not accept the invitation to claim he had, at least, closed the gap on City - or that City had spent extravagantly last summer.
United finished 22 points behind City, who won the title, in 2013-14, with Van Gaal then arriving. Last season the gap was whittled down to just nine, as City slipped to second and United clawed their way up from seventh. This season United appear to be contenders.
"We have to improve," Van Gaal said. "We have made a big step when you compare with last year. That is the only positive thing.
"It's a big step when we win that's true but you also have to continue."
The focus will, also, fall on Wayne Rooney, who turns 30 today.
He is the record goalscorer in derby matches (with 11 goals) and needs just one more goal to match the record of Denis Law with 237 goals for United, and another 13 to beat Bobby Charlton's all-time club record.
Yet there are those renewed and growing concerns over form and fitness and, given the landmark birthday, longevity.
Van Gaal reacted dismissively when the subject of Rooney was raised.
"Every press conference is about Wayne Rooney," he said, having already stated: "All the great players love such a challenge, not only Wayne but also the other big players we have and that's also counting for the big players of Manchester City. They love these matches."
Will Anthony Martial be one such "big player"?
The 20-year-old has made an outstanding impact since his move from Monaco - for a fee that could rise to £58m - with five goals so far and Van Gaal conceded his "consistency" had surprised him.
"He's doing great," he said. That greatness will grow with another decisive contribution tomorrow. (© Daily Telegraph, London)