It’s symbolic of just how firmly Manchester continues to be the Premier League’s powerbase that the Mancunian derby has completely overshadowed the coming weekend’s similar duel of giants on Merseyside.
For even if Liverpool are in swaggering form at present, they are so far from the title race as to be largely irrelevant, yet Jurgen Klopp will be just as desperate for the Manchester derby to go the right way as he will be the Scouse version.
For Sunday’s coming dust up at Old Trafford looks increasingly like the last shred of hope the rest of the division can cling to when it comes to derailing, or at least inconveniencing, Manchester City on their seemingly inexorable march to the title.
Already eight points clear of the field, led by United, another City win would all but seal things short of the kind of catastrophic post-Christmas collapse that seems simply unthinkable. Indeed, were it not against Guardiola’s instincts, even a bus parking exercise and a 0-0 draw would suit City nicely, evading one potential threat from the nearest neighbours.
For United, it’s a more fascinating prospect, one full of jeopardy – defeat and they’re playing purely for second place – but also one that offers tantalising potential too. Victory seems essential, for who else but their closest rivals, geographically and in the table, is likely to beat City and offer a chance to close the gap?
A win would draw United to within five points, but more importantly, it would inflict a heavy blow to what looks like an iron self belief within Guardiola’s team. Their last few games have seen them slip away a little from the high standards set earlier in the campaign, but Champions generally aren’t just the best team, they’re the most resilient team.
Three times of late City have been level in the dying minutes, only to find a winner from somewhere. That’s what United used to do in their prime, what Liverpool would do in the 1980s. Now City do it and the six extra points that’s conjured up for them not only represents their cushion at the top, it represents confidence, belief, a sense of invincibility. If that isn’t dented by United at the weekend, it’s all over.
A United win, which would be all the more remarkable in the absence of the suspended Pogba, could draw others back into the race, certainly Chelsea. But it might do likewise for Liverpool, currently on a terrific run of their own. They could cut the deficit to a still chunky 11 points this weekend, still an unlikely gap to close, but that could depend on the damage a defeat might do the City psyche.
Sadly for Klopp though, a win over Everton is no longer quite the foregone conclusion it looked ten days ago, even at Anfield. Two wins for the Toffees have taken them back to the top ten and they still look the team likeliest to finish seventh come season’s end. What a difference two wins make, making the recruitment of relegation spiking specialist Sam Allardyce look a work of genius, albeit that he played a watching brief at the thumping of West Ham.
We all know Allardyce will organise Everton, making them much harder to play against, not least for Liverpool in a game they simply must win if they are to extend any slender hopes of the league but also if they are to avoid the Champions League qualifier that comes with fourth place. With the two set to face each other in the FA Cup third round, a competition Klopp has to take seriously this term, Liverpool need to strike a blow at Anfield to go into that tie with added confidence.
It’s going to be a fascinating weekend.