LONDON (AFP) – Manchester football supremacy will be at stake at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday when Premier League rivals Manchester City and Manchester United face off in a potentially momentous derby showdown.
United goalkeeping great Peter Schmeichel, who also played for their cross-town rivals, opined this week that City’s status as champions meant that they are presently “a bigger club” than United.
His words echoed a claim made in February by City manager Manuel Pellegrini, whose side beat United 4-1 and 3-0 last season en-route to finishing 22 points above the 20-time champions in the league.
City go into Sunday’s encounter four points above their neighbours in third place in the table – six points shy of leaders Chelsea – but recent events suggest the gap may be narrowing.
City have gone three games without victory, falling further behind Chelsea after a 2-1 loss at West Ham United last weekend and then seeing their reign as League Cup holders ended by Newcastle United on Wednesday.
Last week’s 2-2 draw away to CSKA Moscow, meanwhile, left them facing a battle to qualify from Champions League Group E ahead of a high-stakes return fixture against the Russian champions next week.
Pellegrini complained that his players had shown a “lack of trust” in each other following the 2-0 loss at home to Newcastle, but he believes their downturn in performances will prove short-lived.
“I think they know perfectly what we are doing and I am absolutely sure we will return to our normal performance,” the Chilean said in his pre-game press conference.
“It is a very important game, but every game has just three points, so it is very important for us to just add three points.”
Compounding City supporters’ anxiety is the knowledge that the previous time they won the title, in 2012, they failed to kick on the following season and finished 11 points adrift of eventual champions United.
United struck a decisive blow when they went to the Etihad in December of that campaign, winning 3-2 through an injury-time Robin van Persie free-kick to move six points clear of City.
Another stoppage-time goal by Van Persie means that United approach Sunday’s game with renewed confidence, after the Dutch striker earned his side a morale-boosting 1-1 draw at home to Chelsea last weekend.
It was the kind of late salvo they specialised in under legendary former manager Alex Ferguson, and with some US$240 million of new talent in their ranks in the form of players such as Angel di Maria and Radamel Falcao, it has galvanised belief that United are moving in the right direction under Louis van Gaal.
“This is the biggest derby that I shall manage,” Van Gaal said on Friday.
“It’s one of 38 matches, but for the fans it is unbelievably big as a rivalry. I have felt that with some of the players, but also especially with (assistant manager) Ryan Giggs.