Manchester United’s season has spluttered into second gear with a run of three successive victories, but the sceptics are not convinced, and Erik Ten Hag’s side faces the ultimate test of their credentials at home to Manchester City this weekend.
Dutchman Ten Hag was staring into the abyss when his side trailed Brentford 1-0 with stoppage time looming earlier this month but two late goals spared his blushes.
Another not-too-convincing victory at bottom club Sheffield United last weekend was admirable in its own way following the news of club great Bobby Charlton’s death before kickoff.
Again in midweek, United was unimpressive as they beat FC Copenhagen 1-0 at Old Trafford to kickstart its Champions League campaign – Harry Maguire’s goal and a stoppage time penalty save by Andre Onana getting them out of trouble.
Wins are wins, however, and the mood will be a little more buoyant as it prepares to host Pep Guardiola’s City, who themselves are back in the groove after a slight blip.
City suffered consecutive league defeats before the international break but has answered any doubts with wins over Brighton & Hove Albion and then at Young Boys on Wednesday in the Champions League.
Guardiola will need no reminding that City lost at Old Trafford last year, having crushed United 6-3 at home. City also won the FA Cup final against United on its way to matching the Reds’ treble of 1999.
While United has flattered to deceive this season, victory on Sunday would move them to within three points of City and former City striker Sergio Aguero warns that United can be dangerous when up against the wall.
“I don’t think United have ever been weak. They’ve always had great players and they’ve always shown that ability to recover from bad periods and get back into the fray,” he told the Manchester Evening News.
United’s shortcomings have been well chronicled but its lack of goals – it has the fewest amongst the top 10 – has shone a spotlight on new signing Rasmus Hojlund.
The 20-year-old is yet to score in the Premier League and unkind comparisons with City’s goal machine Erling Haaland are obvious, if unfair. Sunday would be a good time for the youngster to make a statement.
“I still have a lot to improve and I am getting there slowly,” he said. “(The derby) will be a big experience, so I am looking forward to it. It is always special to play a rival and if we win the game, we can get closer to the top.”
The weekend’s fixtures kick off on Friday evening with surprise leaders Tottenham Hotspur away at Crystal Palace eyeing a five-point cushion at the top.
Ange Postecoglou has revitalised Tottenham in quick time since arriving from Celtic but the Australian is not getting carried away and offered a dose of reality after Monday’s home win against Fulham.
“It would be so easy for me to sit here and say ‘We’re a great team’. We have to be better. Absolutely we can,” Postecoglou said after what he described as his team’s worst 45 minutes since he arrived.
Third-placed Arsenal hosts bottom club Sheffield United on Saturday, while fourth-placed Liverpool will aim to maintain its momentum at home to Nottingham Forest on Sunday.
Sixth-placed Newcastle United will have to shrug off the disappointment of its Champions League loss to Borussia Dortmund as it faces Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday. Aston Villa, flying high in fifth, hosts Luton Town on Sunday.