Man City must prioritise Liverpool over Manchester derby
Ask any Manchester City fan whether they were optimistic heading to Goodison Park on Saturday evening and there would probably have been a degree of trepidation. The team very rarely win there, no matter how good they are or how poorly Everton have played.
The evidence of the season so far, though, is that whatever challenge Pep Guardiola’s side face they tend to come through with flying colours. Even so, that wouldn’t have changed the minds of supporters who have been browbeaten by years of struggles on Merseyside.
The 3-1 win for the visitors put them within touching distance of their third Premier League title in seven years, setting up the mouth-watering prospect of sealing the championship with a victory in the Manchester derby. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for supporters, who grew up watching Sir Alex Ferguson’s team dominate while they followed a team on a tour of the Football League.
For supporters, this chance is something they never thought they’d have. The idea that they could watch their side playing some of the best football the English league has ever seen, alongside breaking record after record, and then, on top of that, they could see them take the title against their nearest rivals is just too perfect. Having suffered at United’s hands for decades, the fans couldn’t think of anything sweeter than what Guardiola is offering this campaign.
On the other side of the fence, Jose Mourinho will spend the 90 minutes at the Etihad on Saturday evening doing everything within his power to stop the embarrassment of losing the game and the title in one go. Expect a parked bus in the visiting penalty area and perhaps a few hefty challenges, too.
However, Guardiola faces a dilemma. The City fans would love nothing more than rubbing their rivals’ noses in it, but the Champions League tie with Liverpool that sits either side of the Manchester derby is a more important fixture. The emotional choice would be to go all-out for the victory against United; the more rational choice is to make sure they progress past Liverpool into the semifinals.
The Premier League title is going to the Etihad come what may, such is the distance between City and the chasing pack. That’s why the two-legged tie with Liverpool must be priority.
Of course, this may all be immaterial. Should the unlikely happen and Guardiola returns from Anfield on Tuesday with a good lead, the manager could go all in for the derby. It would go against the historical norm, since City have won once at Liverpool since 1981 and that was an isolated victory for Kevin Keegan’s team in 2003.
More likely, though, is that Guardiola is going to have work to do in the second leg and that means some of the key players should be rested against United.
In the grand scheme of things, Guardiola will actually be kicking himself that his side went out of the FA Cup to third tier Wigan, following that 1-0 loss at the DW Stadium in February. The way the season has gone, with the Premier League as good as sewn up for so long, the manager could have prioritised the cup competitions to create a truly unforgettable campaign. That was an opportunity passed up — and that’s a lesson to carry over into the Champions League.
The style in which City are going to win the title is up there with, if not better than, the best of what’s gone before. With the League Cup also already won, it means the focus has to be on Europe — a competition that City have never really made great waves in, despite being the most regular qualifiers from England in recent years.
The tie with Liverpool is keeping fans on edge. No matter how well City have done since Sheikh Mansour’s investment in 2008, they’ve never really come close to taking a victory away from Anfield. Drawing the only other English team left in the competition was quite low down on their preferred options, behind even some of the European elite.
If City can progress past Jurgen Klopp’s outfit, they’ll have put themselves in a really strong position to make this their most successful season in their history. That means, as much as the heart says a title-winning performance against Manchester United would be the icing on the cake, the head says that prioritising the two legs with Liverpool is the more important.
Of course, City fans can’t lose even if United do win the derby. While the home support would rather be able to gloat right there and there, there’s even something satisfying about watching the rival supporters celebrate delaying the inevitable for another week or two.
The Premier League is won whatever happens on Saturday. The Champions League is where Guardiola’s focus should be.