A derby win is all well and nice, but the desperation of needing a win to stay within sight of table-topping Liverpool takes top billing in the 179th edition of the Manchester derby for City as the two-time reigning Premier League champions host eternal rivals Manchester United on Saturday at the Etihad.
Manchester City (10-2-3) are 11 points adrift of Jurgen Klopp’s unbeaten side, and it has already reached the point where any further dropped points are nails in the coffin to City’s bid to be the first Premier League side to “three-peat” since United turned the trick from 2006-09.
City’s 13 points dropped thus far are three fewer than last season’s title-winning campaign and one less than 2017-18 when they became the only Premier League centurions with 100 points.
Pep Guardiola’s side have gone unbeaten in their last four matches (2-2-0) in all competitions since their 3-1 loss at Anfield on Nov. 10 and put Burnley to the sword Tuesday in a 4-1 romp at Turf Moor. Gabriel Jesus had a brace on either side of halftime, and Rodri let fly with an absolute belter for the third on 68 minutes to put the match out of reach.
With top centre-forward Sergio Aguero still sidelined through injury – the Argentina international will be sorely missed in this derby considering he has been a holy terror versus United with nine goals in 14 lifetime matches in all competitions – Guardiola needs Jesus to be in the right frame of mind, and the Brasilian’s brace offered the City boss some peace of mind heading into Saturday.
“We need Gabriel Jesus. The strikers are there to score goals. We need him,” Guardiola told the club’s official website. “His effort and commitment is always there. He’s very important for us. It is not easy to replace Sergio, but the team doesn’t have doubts about him.
“Strikers score sometimes, sometimes not. We need the quality of player up front to make the difference. I’m so glad for him. He is a fighter. I want him to try and be aggressive in this position. It is important to have the mentality. No doubts about the quality. I’m so optimistic about what he can do, he scored two exceptional goals.”
For Jesus, the brace was his first multigoal game for City since bagging a pair of goals versus Wolverhampton in January. In what could be a harbinger for City or an omen for United, that performance came on the heels of a four-goal outburst versus Burton Albion in a midweek League Cup match.
“Sometimes football is like this,” said Jesus, who has yet to score against United while making one start and four overall appearances. “I know my qualities – I know I can score. I have Sergio with me – I have to learn from him. He’s a legend of football.
“I have to score when I play. Sergio scores every time. That is my ambition. I want to play and score every time.”
Title dreams are a bridge too far for United (5-6-4), who have less than half of Liverpool’s 43 points and are closer to the drop than they are the summit, but the chance to claim a second win in four days over a Big Six rival beckon after a 2-1 victory over former manager Jose Mourinho and his new charges Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
Marcus Rashford accounted for the offence with goals on either side of halftime, and his penalty in the 49th minute after earning his chance at the spot was part of a brilliant performance in which he gave everyone in a Tottenham jersey on the left side of the pitch a torrid time trying to contain him.
“The boy is 22 and he played like he was in the backyard, garden or playground with his mates,” United boss Ole Gunnar Soslkjaer said of Rashford, who speaks of experience as a former United striker himself. “Sometimes, maybe, there is expectation and pressure on him because we do expect a lot from him, as he has shown [what he can do] so many times.
“You can define players by waiting for things to happen or making things happen and Marcus made things happen by his movement, by his decision making, by being direct and positive. It is great to see. I am very happy with how he is maturing.”
The return of Scott McTominay to add defensive bite in the midfield also proved pivotal, and a second such effort will be required of the Scotland international to help United win this derby for just the second time in nine meetings. Fellow midfielder Paul Pogba could play a role in this contest, but with no match action since Sept. 30 due to an ankle injury, it would seem more likely the France international would be available in a reserve role should Solskjaer name him to the 18-man roster for the match.
The midweek win also allowed United to enter this contest in a far better frame of mind than they did last term, when they were embarrassed 4-0 at Everton. City would eventually complete the double with a 2-0 victory at Old Trafford, their first in the storied rivalry since 2013-14.
With eight wins in the last 14 matches across all competitions (8-2-4), City have cut into the overall series lead United enjoys, which is now 73 wins to the red and 53 to the blue along with 52 draws in a rivalry that started when Manchester United defeated Ardwick 5-1 in the 1891 FA Cup.