Big Weekend: Manchester United v Manchester City, Liverpool’s left-back, Iraola, West Ham

Matt Stead
Harry Maguire, Bernardo Silva and Scott McTominay compete for the ball
Another fun Manchester derby, is it?

The Manchester derby stands out but Liverpool have left-back questions, Andoni Iraola is on his final chance, and David Moyes must justify his West Ham call.

 

Game to watch – Manchester United v Manchester City
If the form book truly must exit the window in preparation for a derby, then Manchester City will presumably be the ones throwing it en route to Old Trafford. Pep Guardiola’s side have lost as many of their last six games as they have won, while Manchester United completed the most famous Treble in their history in midweek: three thoroughly unconvincing victories on the spin to keep the crisis at bay.

That is, of course, a nonsense. Six places and half a dozen points separate these two teams in the Premier League but the difference between Manchester United and Manchester City remains chasmic beyond such calculations. In terms of their respective operations and general levels of competence, it is night and day.

But over the course of 90 minutes, Manchester United have long proven worthy adversaries to a team otherwise far superior. Since Guardiola’s appointment at the Etihad in summer 2016, he has won 10 derbies, drawn two and lost seven. The last meeting at this ground went in favour of the hosts.

“We are in the right direction, but it’s January,” Erik ten Hag said after that victory at the turn of the year, since which Manchester United have won a trophy, reached a final – a losing effort to Manchester City themselves – qualified for the Champions League and spent hundreds of millions more on new signings. Yet their trajectory hardly feels positive.

Even that win seems like a lifetime ago. Only five members of that starting line-up might harbour hope of playing on Sunday – Raphael Varane, Casemiro, Bruno Fernandes, Christian Eriksen and Marcus Rashford – and that group includes among them some laughably out-of-form players.

It requires a great deal of mental gymnastics to fathom Manchester United getting a result against the reigning champions, but then they have developed a habit of doing just that even when the two clubs are at opposite ends of the vibe spectrum; if Chris Smalling can complete a comeback from 2-0 down at half-time to win 3-2 at the Etihad and delay title celebrations, anything is possible.

That defeat in the new year was a different era for Manchester City, too. Jack Grealish scored then and is now on the wrong end of a fan culture war against Jeremy Doku. Their starting line-up included Joao Cancelo, Kevin de Bruyne and Riyad Mahrez, who won’t feature here for drastically contrasting reasons. Kalvin Phillips was an unused substitute, because some things never change.

Guardiola’s side are deserved favourites but they have not been at their imperious best this season and, unsustainable as it is in the long run, Manchester United have been producing match-winning moments to mask match-wasting performances with strange consistency. One more is not out of the question.

Manchester United players Harry Maguire and Andre Onana celebrate
Harry Maguire and Andre Onana: the heroes Manchester United need

 

Player to watch – Liverpool’s left-back
Kostas Tsimikas remains in the driving seat but in the absence of Andy Robertson, plenty of candidates are emerging to take the temporary Liverpool left-back wheel.

Luke Chambers made his full debut in the Ryan Gravenberch-inspired Europa League battering of Toulouse, the teenager praised by Trent Alexander-Arnold as “amazing” and “very mature”.

Jurgen Klopp, who noted his “trust” in Chambers, also said “the next one is knocking on the door” in 18-year-old substitute Calum Scanlon, who has earned rave reviews at Anfield.

Joe Gomez, meanwhile, lurks ominously in the background of every defensive position, waiting for his moment.

After Klopp noted before the Everton win that Tsimikas “cannot play all the games from now on so we need other options as well,” it was interesting to see the Greece internationalĀ  substituted first on the hour. “That’s what we have to make sure: that we can use all of them,” the manager added in his rundown of Robertson alternatives. Tsimikas will likely be given another chance against Nottingham Forest on Sunday but it would be no surprise to see Klopp throw an olive branch elsewhere.

 

Manager to watch – Andoni Iraola
There is a suggestion that Bournemouth must beat Burnley at home on Saturday if their Iraola experiment is to continue. And there are few more gentle fixtures in which to deliver such an ultimatum than against one of the teams toiling alongside the Cherries – one place and one point better off.

Then you glance at Bournemouth’s next two games and see Manchester City (a) and Newcastle (h), at which stage it is worth wondering whether there are any benefits to making a change now if the idea has already formed in an anxious Vitality Stadium boardroom.

It would not have been a surprise to see Bournemouth act after the defeat to Wolves, nor if Gary O’Neil’s painstaking explanation as to how he tactically embarrassed the side that dispensed with him this summer was enough for someone in power to pull the trigger out of sheer humiliation. It was akin to a doctor keeping one of their old patients on life support purely so they could describe in detail how their body was failing them.

Iraola is still yet to oversee a game Bournemouth won the corresponding version of last season, although the Cherries did beat Championship winners Fulham at home last season, so the already limited relevance of that excuse will expire this weekend. If Burnley and Vincent Kompany do a number on them, so might Iraola’s contract.

 

Team to watch – West Ham

“Look, we changed a lot of players tonight, we’ve got the Premier League coming up and we’ve got a League Cup game next week and we’d won the first two games in the group, which gave us leeway to make changes tonight.Ā We certainly had a bigger picture in our heads and that was going into Sunday.”

Those are the sorts of decisions which provide unlimited ammunition for a fanbase if and when the tide ever turns; Aston Villa and Stoke supporters still hold it against Martin O’Neill and Tony Pulis respectively for committing one of the mid-table manager’s cardinal sins in naming a weakened side in Europe to focus on an upcoming Premier League fixture.

David Moyes never did really have to specifically prioritise either competition last season. West Ham’s miserable domestic form and majesty on the continent did that for him, to the point where safety was assured and an irresistible path to a trophy opened up. The Scot thus knows far more about this balance than most, but equally he must realise the risk in outlining his case for the defence in such a way.

It makes the game at home to Everton, an opponent against whom the pressureĀ is always inevitably more intense for Moyes than usual, a must-win. Ninth hosting 16th really shouldn’t be that way for the former but that is a natural consequence of espousing the “bigger picture” stuff when it comes to team selection.

READ MORE:Ā Hammers’ record-breaking European run had to end sooner or later after 17 gravity-defying games

 

Football League game to watch – Southampton v Birmingham
A massive shame that instead of rolling back the years with a “nice to see your own fans booing you, you football ‘supporters'” remark in response to the jeers upon Birmingham’s midweek defeat to Hull at St Andrew’s, Wayne Rooney went for the very sensible and ultimately far more boring: “That’s part of football. You need to win games to change that.”

The problem is that Birmingham were doing plenty of that before his appointment. The Blues were sixth with five victories from 11 games under John Eustace, who was ostensibly sacked as part of the new club owners’ push for more attacking football; his last two matches were 4-1 and 3-1 wins.

Rooney was dealt a rough hand when starting against Middlesbrough and Hull but his bid to win frustrated fans over will get no easier with a visit to Southampton. Russell Martin has turned that truly ludicrous ship around: the play-off occupiers have only been outscored by three teams so far and no side has conceded more often. Precisely the sort of entertainment Birmingham were after, and they will get a sample of it at Saturday lunchtime.

 

European game to watch – Napoli v AC Milan
The last two Scudetto winners will be content with their positions in the race to become the next one. Milan are second, one point behind Inter. Napoli are fourth, three points off Juventus, with the top five – completed by Fiorentina – separated by five points.

Keeping things interesting, none of the games between those sides so far have ended in draws. Inter thrashed Fiorentina 4-0 and hammered Milan 5-1; Juventus beat Milan 1-0; Napoli lost 3-1 to Fiorentina. These are six-pointers in the truest sense.

There is hope that Napoli v AC Milan will be no different. The former beat the latter 2-1 at the San Siro last season but were stunned in a 4-0 battering at theĀ Stadio Diego Armando Maradona months later. Their last meeting did end in a draw – but one which sent Milan through to the Champions League semi-finals after a 1-0 first-leg win.

With no Serie A stalemate in this fixture since November 2019, the stakes are higher than a mountaintop eatery. Sorry.