Thursday 19 April 2018

Manchester giants battle to go fourth

City have slight edge but scrap for Champions League place will shape clubs' immediate futures

Kevin de Bruyne's return from injury is well timed for Manchester City (Getty Images)
Kevin de Bruyne's return from injury is well timed for Manchester City (Getty Images)

James Ducker

Manchester United face a testing trip to second-placed Spurs tomorrow and must also play leaders Leicester City, fellow top-four chasers West Ham United at Upton Park, a bogey ground, and two clubs still battling for survival - Crystal Palace and Norwich City.

Having won just two of seven matches against teams in the bottom five, the Palace and Norwich games represent potential banana skins for Louis van Gaal's side.

By contrast, Manchester City's struggles have come against opponents at the top. City have won just one of 13 fixtures and mustered only six points from 39 against the Premier League's current top nine this term - United have taken a respectable 24 points from 39 against the same teams - so, successive games against Stoke City, Southampton and Arsenal may prove particularly taxing for Manuel Pellegrini's men.

Verdict: City may benefit from an easier run-in than their rivals, with three of their final seven matches against teams with nothing to play for.


Both have failed miserably to gather any real momentum and have made a habit of taking a step forward and then two back. Having overcome Bournemouth 4-0 last Saturday, City will be bidding to record back-to-back league wins for the first time since mid-October when they welcome West Brom to the Etihad Stadium tonight.

Since news that Pep Guardiola will replace Pellegrini as manager in the summer was made public in February, City have lost half of their eight league matches, including a 1-0 derby defeat. United have won four of their past five league fixtures to thrust themselves back into contention for Champions League qualification after threatening to drop out of the running.

City could be given an added boost if they progress to the Champions League semi-finals at the expense of Paris Saint-Germain next Tuesday but United will be hoping for a lift of their own the following night when they face West Ham in a FA Cup quarter-final replay.

Verdict: United are enjoying a much better run of league form and will have been boosted psychologically by their win at the Etihad.

The players

As Wayne Rooney has been sidelined since mid-February with knee ligament damage, it is the United youngsters who have picked up the leadership baton. Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard have stepped up when more experienced players have floundered, while David de Gea continues to provide a remarkable safety net in goal.

Ashley Young and Phil Jones, among others, are available again after injury and Rooney is expected to return very soon, but United remain too one-paced and functional and find goals hard to come by.

City have endured their own problems in attack - they have scored just 11 goals in their past eight league games - but the return of midfielder Kevin De Bruyne has come at just the right time. De Bruyne, Sergio Agüero, Raheem Sterling and Yaya Touré account for 35 of City's 56 league goals, but with Sterling still weeks away from a return, the pressure on the other three to find the net is huge.

David Silva's deteriorating form is an added cause of concern, although he is ruled out today with recurrent ankle problems. The prospect of Vincent Kompany returning from injury next week is a huge boon but City are too often undermined by erratic, error-prone players such as Fernando, Eliaquim Mangala and Nicolas Otamendi.

Verdict: City have more match-winners but not all are available or in form. United's defence looks less vulnerable.

The managers

One manager is bidding to bow out on a high but facing a battle to keep an underperforming squad who know he is going motivated, another is scrambling to save his job amid persistent criticism his methods are not working.

Pellegrini's legacy at City will be determined by the outcome of results over the coming weeks after a second successive season in which his side have punched below their weight.

At times, the Chilean looks like he could do with being a little more pragmatic, whereas United would doubtless benefit if Van Gaal loosened the shackles - however, the Dutchman's modus operandi now will centre on making United hard to beat. So often this season, he has appeared to reach the point of no return, only to pull things back from the brink with a timely result.

Verdict: It is a battle between the purist and the arch-pragmatist but neither manager has covered himself in glory and they repeat the same mistakes with troubling frequency.

The repercussions of missing out

If United fail to finish in the top four or win the FA Cup, Van Gaal could pay with his job. Jose Mourinho and Ryan Giggs are desperate to be given the opportunity to succeed him but no Champions League football would deal a huge blow to United's hope of enticing world-class recruits in the transfer market this summer, when they can ill afford any more underwhelming purchases.

It would also increase the pressure on a manager to finish in the top four next term because a second successive season out of the Champions League would see United's £75 million-a-year kit deal with Adidas drop in value by £22.5 million.

City would hope the "Pep effect" would protect them to some degree if they missed out on the top four or failed to win the Champions League. But Guardiola did not bank on having to navigate the Europa League when he agreed to join City and the Thursday-Sunday fixture dilemma would only present an added headache.

City might also run the risk of having to pay more to would-be recruits and the Europa League would be a hard sell to leading targets, such as Paul Pogba, who already favours a move to Barcelona from Juventus.

Overall verdict: It will be a close-run affair and West Ham may yet have a big say in matters but City can pip United to the post by a point or two. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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