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Far from being the noisy neighbours now, Manchester City are leaving United in their wake

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A LITTLE more than a month ago, today’s Manchester derby looked as if it was primed for title-decider status. United sat top, City were in second and there was barely a fag paper between them. Instead this afternoon’s face-off at the Etihad Stadium has taken on the air of a coronation. A win for Pep Guardiola’s side would have the engravers reaching for their cutting pens. When the time comes, they will be etching in a name that has adorned the Premier League trophy in four of the last eight seasons since United last won it. Ominously, it’s three out of the last four if you’re the type to talk of dynasties.

Certainly, those are the kinds of numbers that the red half of Manchester used to rack up relentlessly during their two decades of dominance under Sir Alex Ferguson. But those days feel an awfully long time ago even if United have closed the gap on City somewhat this season.

Coming off the back of a series of leggy performances which have yielded three 0-0 draws in a row, they will pitch up at the Etihad this afternoon with a number of players missing – Paul Pogba is injured, David de Gea is in Spain for the birth of his child while Anthony Martial and Donny van de Beek are struggling – and some old doubts creeping in about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s capacity to do the job.

It is not just City’s relentless run that has turned the league title race in England into a one-team procession. There is a degree of culpability on the shoulders of United for not pushing their noisy neighbours more vigorously. When they ascended to the top of the table on January 20th after a 2-1 win at Fulham, they held a two-point lead on City with a game more played.

They fell behind that day to an early Ademola Lookman goal but, in what was becoming a familiar trend in their season, overturned the deficit – and survived a couple of scares before going on to record their seventh come-from-behind victory of the season.

Since then, though, that happy knack for turning the tables on opponents has deserted them. Indeed, the magic dust vanished in their very next match when they lost 2-1 to a relegation-haunted Sheffield United side which was recording only its second victory of the season

Yes, a week after that win at Craven Cottage, they twice pegged back Liverpool in an FA Cup fourth round tie before Bruno Fernandes struck a late free-kick to secure victory. But they have not repeated the feat since. They did concede first at The Hawthorns against West Brom but the match finished all square thanks to another goal from Bruno.

The Portuguese playmaker is a case in point. He is somewhat a victim of his own success: the high standards he sets can be used as a stick to beat him when he falls below them. What is undeniable is that, in the league games since that win at Fulham, his goals from open play have dried up. He has four in eight games since then but two came from the penalty spot and a growing narrative around him is that he goes missing in big games. His anonymous performance against Chelsea last weekend and, more broadly, his statistics against elite teams, seem to back that theory up with him scoring just once in the Premier League against the nominal top six.

Meanwhile, Solskjaer is not helped by a cabal of former players scrutinising United’s every move in their jobs as television pundits. While the Norwegian is not the direct target of their criticism, the heat is often reflected on to him and as such, in the aftermath of two particularly poor performances that garnered lots of attention, the ‘Ole out’ hashtags have returned on social media.

“We know the fans aren’t in the stadium, we know there’s been a lot of football, but they did look really lethargic tonight and well off it,” said Gary Neville after the 0-0 draw at Crystal Palace. “The body language just looked really drained. If you were Liverpool or Chelsea watching that tonight you’d be thinking, ‘we’re in with a right chance because they look leggy’. They are sleepwalking in games. They are thinking that they are okay, they will get a goal, because many times this season they have played badly in first halves of matches and then gone and won the second half. But now it’s not happening for them.”

In the aftermath of last weekend’s draw at Chelsea, Roy Keane explored similar themes saying that he was bored watching United whereupon he went on to question their mindset. The latter point was particularly salient.

A hallmark of Solskjaer’s team since arriving at United has been long periods of winning runs followed by equally lengthy spells with patchy results.

One factor in their credit is their prolific away form. They are the only side in Europe’s top five leagues not to lose on their travels this season and Solskjaer has won both of his two visits to the Etihad since taking the United job in 2019.

Ed Woodward, United’s executive vice-chairman said this week that “the progress made by Ole and the players this season is clear”. For his part, Solskjaer believes they are going in the right direction, albeit they are currently a “fair distance” behind City.

It would be considered success at almost anywhere else but United especially since it is City who sit atop the Premier League. The latter provide an inconvenient reminder of what United once were: the club with the most money, best manager, best players and with vast global appeal. United still boast plenty of the latter but not the former. These are all advantages underscored further each time points are dropped by United and City disappear just a little bit further over the horizon.

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