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Dublin: 7 °C Friday 10 April, 2020

Is the Manchester derby finally a rivalry worth the name again?

City have beaten United in five out of the last six Premier League clashes between the pair, but Louis van Gaal is closing the gap as they prepare for Sunday’s meeting.

Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal last Sunday.
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal last Sunday.
Image: PA Wire/Press Association Images

IT WAS IN the wake of the humbling Manchester derby defeat in March that David Moyes finally lost the faith of the few United supporters that still backed him.

“We have played a very good side, playing at the sort of level we are aspiring to,” said Moyes after the 3-0 defeat.

Manchester United. Aspiring to be like City; the annoying little brother, the noisy neighbours. It was blasphemy, the final straw and proof that Moyes was not the man for the club having inherited the runaway Premier League champions from Alex Ferguson less than a year earlier.

When City were bought by their billionaire Abu Dhabi owners, it looked like the Manchester rivalry might dominate English football for years.

But last season the gap between the teams looked as big as ever, just with the roles reversed.

Manuel Pellegrini’s team beat their local rivals 4-1 and 3-0 last term and by the end of the season finished champions, 22 points ahead of seventh-placed United. It was embarrassing.

City have now won five of the last six Manchester derbies in the Premier League, a run of dominance that started with the famous 6-1 demolition at Old Trafford in October 2011.

But as the sides prepare to face each other for the first time this season at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday, the gap has closed.

The chasm has not exactly been reduced to a crack, but the shape of the two squads ahead of Sunday’s game suggests we might again have a rivalry worthy of the name and the hype.

Louis van Gaal has experienced some early difficulties at United in getting the team to adapt to his style, with weaknesses exacerbated by some atrocious defending and a crippling injury list.

But the deserved 1-1 draw with Chelsea last weekend pointed towards progress as they made plenty of chances and played in a combative, organised manner against the league leaders and favourites.

The Van Gaalacticos – Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao and Juan Mata – have furnished United with the most fearsome attack in the country, at least on paper, and they can expect to make chances against a City side that has lost to West Ham and Newcastle in the last week.

It should be a clash between two talented but flawed teams whose natural instincts are to go on the attack rather than to play in a more conservative fashion and protect their vulnerable backlines from being exposed.

Soccer - Capital One Cup - Fourth Round - Manchester City v Newcastle United - Etihad Stadium Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

For City, it feels ominously like their last title defence. They started slowly in the 2012-13 season and threw away points with individual errors, while important players looked mentally and physically fatigued.

They are already six points behind league leaders Chelsea and with Jose Mourinho preparing for a home banker against QPR this weekend, City can barely afford to allow the gap to extend on Sunday.

City certainly won’t expect the strolls in the park they experienced last season and the game is set up for goals and counter-attacks.

Whatever happens, United certainly won’t be approaching the match with the sort of awe and respect with which Moyes looked over to east Manchester.

Manchester was dominated by the blue half last season. United have the team, manager and desire to make the city red again.

- Greg Stobart,

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