LONDON (AFP) – Manchester United’s early Champions League exit means Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s position is back under scrutiny ahead of Manchester City’s visit to Old Trafford for a game neither side can afford to lose.
The Manchester derby (December 13, 1.30am Brunei time) is the most eye-catching fixture during a Premier League weekend that includes a trip to Crystal Palace for leaders Tottenham and a date at Fulham for champions Liverpool.
AFP Sport looks at some of the main talking points ahead of the action.
Both Manchester clubs have recovered from slow starts to the campaign after having barely two weeks of pre-season due to European commitments in August.
Solskjaer’s men, following a run of four straight league wins, can claim to be in the hunt for a first league title since Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013 sent the Red Devils into a spiral of decline.
But the helter-skelter nature of some of those victories, allied to the shoddy defending that led to a 3-2 defeat to RB Leipzig in midweek, means the pressure is once again on the Norwegian.
A fourth defeat in six Premier League games at Old Trafford this season could see the Red Devils finish the weekend eight points off the leaders, albeit with a game in hand.
City are a point behind United, in seventh, but Pep Guardiola’s men appear to be coming into form after recording back-to-back league wins for the first time this season.
In stark contrast to United’s Champions League woes, City’s serene progress into the last-16, with two games to spare, allowed Guardiola to leave Kevin De Bruyne and Gabriel Jesus in reserve for the derby.
“When you win it’s always easy to go to the next game, it’s easier to win again and again,” said Bernardo Silva after Wednesday’s 3-0 victory against Marseille.
“We want to keep the momentum going in a tough game against United on Saturday and we want to keep winning.”
However, for all United’s inconsistencies, Guardiola will be wary of their pace.
City were repeatedly undone by United’s quickfire counter-attacks last season – losing three of four meetings – and have shown signs in defeats to Tottenham and Leicester this season that they have not resolved the issue.
United and City are just two of five genuine title contenders, with Chelsea perched just two points behind Tottenham and Liverpool at the top of the table.
A slip in the standards set by Liverpool and City in recent seasons promises the most open race for years.
New Chelsea signings Edouard Mendy, Ben Chilwell, Thiago Silva and Timo Werner are making a big impact for Frank Lampard’s men, who are on a 17-game unbeaten run in all competitions, excluding the penalty shootout defeat to Tottenham in the League Cup.
The Blues can leapfrog Spurs when they travel to Everton (December 13, 4am Brunei time), with Tottenham seeking to extend their own unbeaten run in the league to 11 games at Crystal Palace (December 13, 10.15pm Brunei time).
Tottenham have not won the league since 1961 but, in Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, currently have the most lethal strike duo in the league and have conceded just one goal in their past six league games.
Liverpool are well-placed, with their injury crisis easing.
Trent Alexander-Arnold started for the first time in a month on Wednesday, captaining his boyhood club at just 22 in the 1-1 Champions League draw against Midtjylland.
Arsenal are the only member of the so-called “Big Six” who have lost touch with the top of the Premier League.
The Gunners are a lowly 15th in the table after their sixth defeat in 11 games at the hands of Tottenham last week.
The main problem for Mikel Arteta’s men is the lack of goals – only the current bottom three have scored fewer than Arsenal’s 10 so far and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has not found the net from open play in the league since the opening weekend.
But the Spaniard was buoyed by his side’s reaction after the defeat to Spurs, saying he sees a team with “big belief”.