Man United Host Man City In Titanic EPL Battle

.Photo shows the mood as Man United Manager Jose Mourinho (left) and Man City Coach Pep Guardiola ponder on Sunday’s big EPL clash at Old Trafford. –

It might not be the biggest derby of all time as some are suggesting but there is no disputing Manchester City will provide an early acid test for Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United side.

Any fixture four games into a league season cannot truly compete with some of the classic encounters between the clubs in the past, including key games towards the end of a title race (1968 and 2012, for example) and semi-finals in the FA Cup and League Cup.

This is not even the first time the clubs have met with 100 per cent records at the start of a season as, exactly 11 years ago on Saturday, Joey Barton cancelled out Ruud van Nistelrooy’s opener to at least ensure the local rivals remained unbeaten in the early days of 2005/06.

Yet the feeling persists this is a proper examination of both sides’ championship credentials as the two clubs at the head of the bookmakers’ betting for the spoils in May collide head on at Old Trafford with the world’s glare on this all-Manchester affair.

United dismissed Bournemouth and Southampton with minimum fuss before Marcus Rashford’s injury-time winner at Hull City dramatically altered the dynamic in the build-up to the derby. It is fair to say the Reds would still have been confident after a dominant display but the manner of the victory supplied a surge of optimism that should still be in plentiful supply when the players line up in front of an expectant crowd.

The international break may have been a distraction from the fans’ primary focus but there are positives to be gleaned. Anthony Martial notched his first senior international goal for France, past Italy legend Gianluigi Buffon no less, and Marcus Rashford looked too good for Under-21 football when claiming a hat-trick in England’s 6-1 rout of Norway. Yes, Antonio Valencia may be late returning after his exploits with Ecuador, and there is a slight worry over Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s fitness but there should be no undue need for concern.

As for City, they stuttered in their opener, needing a late own goal by ex-Reds defender Paddy McNair to see off Sunderland, but this could be expected with new manager Pep Guardiola attempting to implement a new and pretty unique playing style. A trip to Romania to face Steaua Bucharest in a Champions League qualifier provided the perfect confidence boost as Sergio Aguero atoned for two penalty misses by still bagging a hat-trick in the Blues’ 5-0 away win.

A fourth spot-kick of the fledgling campaign set City on their way to another comprehensive win at Stoke and, after a 1-0 win in the second leg against Steaua, West Ham were beaten 3-1 at the Etihad Stadium. The result may have been closer than the scoreline suggests as Raheem Sterling’s clincher came at the death and the hosts should have been reduced to 10 men when Aguero caught Winston Reid with his elbow.

City’s top scorer has subsequently been punished with a three-game ban, following a video review of the incident, and there is no doubt he will be sorely missed by the visitors, particularly as he has such a fine record in the derby. Nonetheless, Guardiola’s men have quality throughout their ranks and will strive to impose their possession football on the Reds, while maintaining a cutting edge through the in-form Sterling and Nolito, possibly with Kelechi Iheanacho, a striker of huge promise, leading the line – at least at some point.

United, of course, have our own teen idol in Rashford and he hit the winner the last time the teams met with the only goal managed in the two fixtures in 2015/16. Yet there are so many questions to be asked of the other stars on show, many of them global figures. How will Claudio Bravo perform in goal presuming he is thrust in for his City debut? Can John Stones handle a centre-forward as wily and intelligent as Zlatan Ibrahimovic? Will Paul Pogba control the midfield? Is Wayne Rooney set to improve on his record number of Manchester derby goals?

Bad weather put paid to a pre-season friendly in Beijing, ruining a chance for any clues as to this weekend’s outcome to be obtained, even at that early stage of Mourinho and Guardiola’s reigns. So this is a first huge test to watch unfold, with the home supporters hoping to make the difference come Saturday by roaring the Reds to the sweetest of victories. All eyes are on Manchester and anything can happen.


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