It HAS been more than a decade since a Manchester derby in the Premier League had so little relevance to the title race.
In February 2005, United won 2-0 at the Etihad Stadium to reduce their gap to Chelsea to nine points. The London club ended up cantering to the championship by 12 points, beginning a stint of unprecedented success under Jose Mourinho.
United or City have won the title a combined seven times in the intervening nine years, but a glance at the current Premier League standings shows that era of dominance is over.
When the Manchester rivals meet tomorrow, they will be in third and fourth place respectively, trailing in the wake of runaway leaders Chelsea and also behind rejuvenated Arsenal. Chelsea, with just two defeats all season, could clinch the title before May.
So, the match at Old Trafford takes place against a different backdrop than usual. Local bragging rights are at stake, as ever, as is securing places in the top four to confirm Champions League qualification next season. But both teams will also be looking to make a statement – to each other and to the rest of the Premier League.
For United manager Louis van Gaal there is also the chance to savour a first victory in the fixture.
“I dream of it, every player shall dream of the victory,” the Dutchman said yesterday, having tasted defeat in his only other experience of the derby last November when Sergio Aguero scored the only goal in a 1-0 win for City.
That was United’s fourth successive loss to their neighbours, and Van Gaal is determined to avoid another reverse tomorrow when Manuel Pellegrini’s men come calling. Victory would strengthen United’s grip on third place as they would then be four points clear of their “noisy neighbours’” A third-placed finish would guarantee direct entry into the Champions League and that is what Van Gaal is aiming for.
“You want to win because it is a big step in the table also,” he added. “When you win, third place is then reachable and a month ago nobody was thinking about that, besides me, of course.
“Third is good because you are certainly qualified for the Champions League and then we do better than the goal that was set in pre-season.” United go into the match as favourites because of their recent form. Van Gaal’s team have won five straight league matches while City have won just two of their last seven in all competitions.
Van Gaal thinks form will have little bearing on the outcome of the match, though. “Manchester City has lost several games, but I don’t think that shall [be] a big influence in the game because it is a special game,” he said.
He is not concerned about United’s recent dire record against their opponents, either. “That’s not my history,” he added. “What can I say? We have lost 1-0. That is my history, the last game we played against them and we had a red card in the 39th minute, I believe.” Chris Smalling was the man who was dismissed at the Etihad. The defender earned his first booking for blocking Joe Hart as he went to kick the ball out of his hands, and just before half-time he saw yellow for a second time for clumsily hacking down James Milner. Van Gaal, who will be without Robin van Persie, Luke Shaw and Jonny Evans tomorrow, will therefore remind his players they must stay on the pitch.
He added: “In such games always you have to control your aggression and we did not do that then so I hope we have learned from that moment.”