Big Midweek: Manchester derby, Spurs, Agnew, Palace

Date published: Wednesday 26th April 2017 12:01

Game to watch – Manchester City v Manchester United
Jose Mourinho might be torn ahead of the Manchester derby. As he prepares to take his fifth-placed side across town to face fourth-placed City, the United boss will be loath to allow Pep Guardiola’s men to open up a four-point gap in the race for the top four, so a draw would probably suffice. But Mourinho will also be getting the faint whiff of blood drifting over from the east.

United go into the derby on the back of a week that produced three wins: One against the leaders and his former club, another to reach the Europa League semi-final and Sunday’s victory at Burnley, which the manager described as “fantastic” both individually and collectively.

In contrast, for City April has brought two wins, two defeats and a draw, all of which have left them clinging on to the last Champions League spot and Pep potless for the first time in his managerial career.

City are vulnerable, and Mourinho will know it. As Yaya Toure not-so-subtly alluded to, Guardiola’s team may have been on the wrong end of a couple of refereeing decisions at Wembley, but they failed to take advantage of Arsenal’s fragility and passed up a place in the FA Cup final after allowing the Gunners to fight back. In the wake of defeat, doubts now surround Sergio Aguero and David Silva’s participation in the derby, while questions persist over City’s failure to control games in which they dominate possession.

Mourinho would be happy to provide City the rope and leave them to it. The United boss will perhaps refer to the same blueprint that led to Chelsea’s downfall at Old Trafford last week, which could be why he is so keen to get Chris Smalling and Phil Jones back, even though Eric Bailly’s form makes him undroppable.

Mourinho rested Marcus Rashford at Burnley and, though Anthony Martial impressed in a central role, the young England star will certainly be back for the derby. More on him and what he might like to do City’s centre-halves later.

Despite United’s cup adventures, there is no doubt they have underachieved in the Premier League, but the same accusation can be levelled at City. Mourinho has been facing intense scrutiny for the duration of the season, but the spotlight is only now being shone in Guardiola’s direction.  A draw would displease neither, but a victory holds much greater rewards for the men who were supposed to establish Manchester as the powerhouse of English football.

Plus Mourinho wants revenge. Despite playing down their intense rivalry ahead of September’s derby meeting, the manner of City’s dominance at Old Trafford will have stung the United boss. A Capital One Cup victory won’t have sated the Portuguese, but enhancing his own prospects while landing a major blow on Guardiola will taste far more sweet.


Player(s) to watch – Chris Smalling and Phil Jones

“If I was Smalling or Jones, I would play Thursday, with anything. I wouldn’t accept one guy to play nine matches in a row because I am injured.

“I would do a last push. If they have a crazy mentality like I have, they would.”

Mourinho called the pair out after the win at Burnley, urging them both to do whatever they had to in order to line up against City. He was also chipping away after the win over Anderlecht, urging Smalling and Jones to “be brave”. His words suggest there is more at stake for both than mere derby involvement. Mourinho chooses his generals according to his own principles; these two have to stand in line.

Smalling and Jones have both been missing since the international break, during which Smalling crocked Jones before injuring himself a day or so later. It would be laughable if it wasn’t exactly the type of tragicomedy that United fans have become accustomed to from the pair.

Smalling has a leg injury and is only a week or so out of a brace. Jones is struggling with a toe complaint but Mourinho isn’t concerned with the details. If three at the back is in his thinking, the manager needs at least one of the pair to douse themselves up on painkillers and get their boots on. If either bows to the manager’s pressure, keep an eye on how they cope with City’s fast and furious attack.


Team to watch – Tottenham
Though hardly of their own making, the hype around Spurs had built up to a crescendo last week before Chelsea became the latest side to p*ss on their chips at Wembley. Though you would have to be an Arsenal fan to doubt their technical quality, Tottenham still have to answer questions about their mental resolve and Crystal Palace will be posing them on Wednesday.

Sam Allardyce’s side are buoyant after winning at Liverpool and Chelsea either side of crushing Arsenal at Selhurst Park. Big Sam has solidified them at the back, with their Anfield victory coming in spite of Mamadou Sakho’s absence, while Jurgen Klopp called Palace’s attack “one of the best offensive lines in the Premier League” even before Christian Benteke had rubbed his ex-manager’s nose in it.

This London derby is a huge test for Mauricio Pochettino’s men. Hugo Lloris took the positives from the semi-final defeat. saying: “You can win, you can lose, but the most important thing is to do it with your identity.” But that hints at skewed priorities if Tottenham have ambitions of becoming “a winning team”, as he referred to Chelsea. Spurs have won fewer away games than anyone else in the top five and drawn the most out of anyone in that elite group. They need to find a win.


One-to-one battle to watch – Marcus Rashford v Vincent Kompany
It is not clear who will form the centre-back partnership for Manchester City, but Rashford will be licking his lips whoever Guardiola chooses.

Vincent Kompany has played three of City’s last four matches and, most encouragingly, hasn’t broken down yet, despite going the full 120 minutes at Wembley on Sunday. Such exertion could tempt Guardiola to rest the club captain when United turn up on Thursday, but John Stones’ injury may mean the City boss has no choice but to field the Belgian.

Whoever partners Nicolas Otamendi, Rashford will fancy his chances. The teenager embarrassed Martin Demichelis to give United the derby spoils at the Etihad a year ago and City’s two most senior centre-backs would doubtless have preferred to face the braun of Zlatan Ibrahimovic rather than Rashford’s rapier-like pace.


Manager to watch – Steve Agnew
The Boro boss followed in Craig Shakespeare’s shoes by stepping up from No.2 to being the main man, but the pair’s fortunes could hardly be more contrasting. While the Leicester boss has won five of his seven games in charge Agnew is yet to taste victory, and the possibility of that never seemed so remote as at Bournemouth on Saturday.

Agnew, as you might expect, is outwardly positive and continues to make his case for being given the job on a permanent basis, But since Aitor Karanka was sacked, he has tried six different formations and none has provided the formula for victory. That hardly hints at a coach who was adequately prepared to take charge.

Under Karanka, many thought Boro were playing with the handbrake permanently on, but at least they were defensively sound and comparatively hard to beat. Since Agnew replaced him, Boro have conceded an average of one goal a game more and have shipped four goals twice – to Hull and Bournemouth – which never happened under Karanka’s watch.

Agnew called his players in early on Sunday morning to “address the situation”but their performance at Bournemouth suggests the players don’t have the answers and they don’t trust the ones Agnew is offering. It is already too late, given that Boro are nine points adrift of relegation rivals who have shown they know how to win, but the visit of the only side in the Premier League worse than Boro at least offers Agnew a free-hit to show that he can rouse his men. Fail to win, and he can kiss any hope of keeping the job beyond May goodbye.


Football League game to watch – Wolves v Huddersfield
It’s either that or Port Vale v Walsall. You choose.


Where is Mike Dean this week?
Fresh from composing limericks besmirching Craig Pawson while Middlesbrough were being torn a new one at Bournemouth, Mr Dean gets the dubious  pleasure of an even closer look at Boro when he refs the ‘derby of infinite sadness’ at The Riverside. Officiating the division’s two worst teams is not becoming of The Dean, especially when there is a Manchester derby taking place that has a spotlight just waiting to be stolen. Someone will pay…


Ten live matches to watch
Chelsea vs Southampton (Premier League, Tuesday 7:45pm, Sky Sports 1)
Borussia Monchengladbach vs Eintracht Frankfurt (DFB Pokal semi-final, Tuesday, 7:45pm, BT Sport 3)
Atletico Madrid vs Villarreal (La Liga, Tuesday, 8:30pm, Sky Sports 3)
Barcelona vs Osasuna (La Liga, Wednesday, 6:30pm, Sky Sports 2)
Bayern Munich vs Borussia Dortmund (DFB Pokal semi-final, Wednesday, 7:45pm, BT Sport 3)
Chelsea U18 vs Man City U18 (FA Youth Cup Final 2nd Leg, Wednesday, 7:45pm, ITV4)
Crystal Palace vs Tottenham Hotspur (Premier League, Wednesday, 8pm, Sky Sports 1)
Deportivo La Coruna vs Real Madrid (La Liga, Wednesday, 8:30pm, Sky Sports 2)
Sevilla vs Celta Vigo (La Liga, Thursday, 7:30, Sky Sports Mix)
Man City vs Man Utd (Premier League, Thursday, 8pm, Sky Sports 1)

Ian Watson

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