LONDON: The eyes of the football world will turn to a wintry corner of northwest England on Sunday when Manchester United tackle Manchester City in a mid-season Premier League title showdown.
City, the leaders, are gunning for a 14th successive league win — which would equal the all-time record in the English top flight — and can put a huge 11 points between themselves and second-place United if they prevail.
But United are seeking to set a record of their own by notching up a 41st consecutive home match without defeat and City manager Pep Guardiola is wary of his old foe Jose Mourinho’s ability to roll with the punches.
“Until now we cannot complain in terms of results and especially the way we have played,” said Guardiola, who was the last away manager to win at Old Trafford in September last year. “When you see in every game the statistics — not just the way we play — we are better in terms of potential goals, possession and chances conceded. But I think United are fantastic on that. When the statistics are good they win and when they are not good they are able to win 3-1 (against Arsenal) at the Emirates, one of the most difficult stadiums. They conceded 33 shots and they won 3-1. Few teams in the world are able to do that. That’s why you have to be careful. You can control, you can do many things good, but then they have the talent to do that.”
As sublime as City’s football has been since the start of the season, they have had to work much harder for their victories in recent weeks.
In their last three league wins — 2-1 successes away to Huddersfield Town and at home to Southampton and West Ham United — they had to wait until the 83rd minute or later to score the winning goal.
They then lost at Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League in mid-week and although it was a nothing game for them and Guardiola selected a weakened team, it brought a record-breaking streak of 20 straight wins to an end.
United appear to be on an upward curve, having won their last four games, and followed up last weekend’s clinical 3-1 win at Arsenal by beating CSKA Moscow 2-1 on Tuesday to follow City into the Champions League last 16.
Home-grown midfielder Jesse Lingard, a central figure in United’s recent run, has plenty of respect for the talent in Guardiola’s ranks, but believes City can be harried out of their stride just like Arsenal were.
“When (Kevin) De Bruyne’s on the ball, he’s always got that eye for a killer pass that can put a player one-on-one with the keeper and Raheem Sterling’s been popping up with the late goals,” Lingard told the United match programme. “It’s going to be full on for 90-plus minutes. We need to be on point until that whistle goes, so everyone needs to stay highly concentrated throughout. As long as we start the game well, like we did at Arsenal, I don’t see any reason why we can’t win.”
For all Lingard’s bullishness, recent history favours City, who have won on four of their last six visits to Old Trafford in the league, including an earth-shattering 6-1 victory in October 2011.
United manager Mourinho has gradually ramped up the sniping pre-match, scoffing at Guardiola’s claim that David Silva was an injury doubt and accusing City’s players of diving (“a little bit of wind and they fall”).
Silva has been passed fit after sitting out the trip to Shakhtar with a knock, but Vincent Kompany is a doubt and City are guaranteed to be without two first-choice defenders in John Stones and Benjamin Mendy.
Paul Pogba is United’s major absentee through suspension, which is likely to bring the tigerish Ander Herrera into Mourinho’s midfield.