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06th Apr 2018

The key battles that will decide whether Man United can stop City being crowned champions on Saturday

These head-to-heads will go a long way to deciding the Manchester derby

Nooruddean Choudry

Will Pep Guardiola lord it over his old foe, or will Jose Mourinho ruin his party?

The Manchester derby rarely requires added hype. It is always an occasion, and continues to stir up a fierce civic rivalry steeped in history and tradition. It is at once both a global happening and a parochial spat. When you add the notorious enmity between the Iberian managers at the helm of each club, it only serves to heighten the sense of grand occasion and deep-routed animosity.

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But Saturday’s Mancunian summit is even tenser than usual. That’s because Manchester City have the opportunity of a lifetime – something that only happens once in a blue moon (sorry). Victory at the Etihad would mean that they’d be crowned Champions of England in front of their greatest rivals, for whom it would be anything but a coronation treat (again, apologies).

But what are the individual battles that will decide the outcome of this most pivotal of derbies? Let us don* our half-and-half scarves (*burn) and consider at the key head-to-heads.

Kevin de Bruyne vs Scott McTominay

It may seem a mismatch at first glance. A player who has established himself as one of the most accomplished playmakers in Europe versus a scrappy youngster whose main attributes are his industry and endeavour. However, it could go a long way to deciding the game. De Bruyne showed against Liverpool that his petulant side can come to fore if he’s buffeted out of the game, whilst McTominay has replaced Ander Herrera as Mourinho’s preferred ‘man-marker’ in midfield. He’ll no doubt be charged with ‘doing a job’ on Kevin.

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Kyle Walker vs Alexis Sanchez

It is fair to say that Alexis’ Manchester United career has been a tad underwhelming thus far. His transfer from Arsenal was welcomed with much hullabaloo and ivory tickling, but his performances on the pitch haven’t matched his own high standards. That said, he enjoyed his best game as a Red Devil against Swansea last week and that may be just the fillip he requires to kick on. Coming in from the left he’ll come up against Walker, who certainly won’t be beaten in a foot race.

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Raheem Sterling vs Antonio Valencia

The pair have clashed in the past, as images of the Ecuadorian attempting to strangle his opposition number will attest, but Sterling in particular will have a point to prove this weekend. He may have no regrets for swapping Liverpool red for Manchester blue back in 2015, but it will sting on a personal level that he was so impotent against his former club on Wednesday. Valencia is nothing if not obstinate, but he may find a motivated Sterling with a point to prove hard to handle.

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Fernandinho vs Paul Pogba

Paul Pogba is fast becoming an enigma at Old Trafford. Nobody can question his sublime talent or technical prowess. At his best, few can match his combination of skill, strength and vision. But some are now openly questioning whether his big money transfer from Juventus was a mistake. Is it a case of the right club, but the wrong manager? If Pogba hopes to one day become the best midfielder in Manchester, in Fernandinho he comes up against the current holder of that title.

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Champions League vs Bragging rights

Pep Guardiola is in something of a predicament. Of course he would love to win the title against his greatest personal rival in Jose Mourinho, and underline his superiority over the seething Portuguese, but there is a real sense that he has bigger fish to fry. The Champions League quarter-final straddling the derby has complicated matters, and Guardiola himself has admitted that City have one eye on the second leg on Tuesday. City will win the league, but will Pep’s desire to be crowned on derby day take precedence over European glory? We’ll have a better idea once the lineups are announced.

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