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First-season failure? The high stakes of Thursday's Manchester derby

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Match of the Day

Man City v Man Utd

Manchester City v Manchester United
Venue: Etihad Stadium Date: Thursday, 27 April Kick-off: 20:00 BST
Coverage: Live text commentary online, on mobile, BBC Sport app; Updates on BBC Radio 5 live

This season was supposed to be a showdown between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho for the Premier League title, but it has obviously not worked out that way.

They meet again at Etihad Stadium on Thursday, when Guardiola’s Manchester City side will go for a repeat of their win over Mourinho’s Manchester United in September.

That win put City top of the table, but it is a long time since either Manchester club was in that position.

Man Utd this season<!–<!–[if lte IE 8]><![endif]–>

It is a top-four finish that is now at stake, not any silverware.

It shows how competitive the division is that, even with the unbelievable resources they both have, two of the best managers in the world are struggling to secure Champions League football for next season.

No trophy no big deal for Guardiola – but top four is

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Whether or not they qualify for the Champions League is what will define Guardiola and Mourinho’s first season at their new clubs.

No trophy for Guardiola is no big deal, but missing out on the top four would be abject failure with what he has got and where Manchester City want to be.

I don’t see that happening, but it would be interesting to hear Guardiola’s assessment after a year in England if that is the situation he finds himself in.

I would not say he has misjudged the Premier League, but I don’t think he ever quite got a handle on the fact there is no such game as an easy game here – home or away.

There was a spell for a couple of months before Christmas when City’s performances were up and down because Guardiola kept changing their system as well as their personnel.

Pep Guardiola's first unchanged team line-up as Man City manager<!–<!–[if lte IE 8]><![endif]–>

Things have settled down now but that illustrated perfectly the difference between Guardiola’s approach and Mourinho’s.

The first thing Mourinho does wherever he goes is sort the defence out, because he knows they can buy you time in games and sometimes help you win them in the end.

That has definitely been the case at United, who have been on this long league unbeaten run this season – they have not lost for 23 games since their 4-0 defeat against Chelsea on 23 October.

But I think Guardiola has maybe only realised it recently – and not being solid enough has cost City points in games they should have won.

A fine line between success and failure

Premier League table<!–<!–[if lte IE 8]><![endif]–>

If United win on Thursday, they will break into the top four for the first time since 15 September, and City will drop out for the first time since 12 February.

Three successive league wins have changed things a lot since Mourinho took stock of his side’s situation at the start of April, and as good as admitted that winning the Europa League was their best route into the Champions League.

It is now feasible they could win that competition and also qualify via their league position.

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Mourinho has already won the League Cup so – should they win the Europa League – would have two trophies and a top-four finish, and we would all be saying how fantastic he has done, despite the fact they have never been in touch with the title race.

On the other hand, if they finish fifth rather than fourth and fail to win the Europa League then people are going to reflect on his first season at Old Trafford very differently.

In that scenario, winning the League Cup is not enough and he will be the one we are calling a failure, even if it is by a hair’s breadth.

No wonder United midfielder Ander Herrera is calling the derby the biggest game of United’s season so far.

Their players clearly think they have now got a great chance of making the top four – especially if they beat City.

Unpredictable Mourinho has slight advantage

Man City have been top for 75 days and in the Premier League's top four for 226 out of a total (on 26 April) of 257 days this season<!–<!–[if lte IE 8]><![endif]–>

Of the two managers, Mourinho is the one most likely to adapt his tactics for such an important one-off match.

Even if Guardiola is without striker Sergio Aguero and playmaker David Silva, who are both injury doubts, I don’t see him changing very much about the way City play, because it is always based around them having most of the possession.

Mourinho is different, in that he always has a specific plan for the opposition.

Where I think that gives him the slight edge here is we cannot be sure of what that will be.

Will it be all-out defence, like it was when they went to Anfield in October and surrendered possession to Liverpool in a 0-0 draw?

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Or will they take the game to City the way they pressed and harried Chelsea high up the pitch in their 2-0 win over the leaders earlier this month?

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Mourinho has surprised people before so you cannot be sure what he has got up his sleeve.

Yes, City are at home and have the better attacking players but they don’t know what sort of United team and tactics they will be up against.

Will they park the bus, or will they try to have a go at City? I already feel it is a little bit ‘advantage Mourinho’ because of that unpredictability there is to him.

Lawro’s prediction – it’s going to be close

Lawro's prediction<!–<!–[if lte IE 8]><![endif]–>

Psychologically, I am pretty sure City will be fine despite the disappointment of their extra-time defeat by Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final.

Of the two managers, there is possibly more pressure on Guardiola, if only because the top four is their only route into the Champions League.

But captain Vincent Kompany’s return from injury has made a big difference to them defensively and they have been playing well in the Premier League, with convincing wins over Hull and Southampton in their past two games before their FA Cup exit.

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Marcus Rashford’s pace will unsettle City, although maybe not to the same extent as it did at Etihad Stadium last season, when he exposed Martin Demichelis to score the winner.

City have plenty of potential danger-men too, of course, but I would be surprised if United’s unbeaten run ended on Thursday – with Mourinho involved it is going to be a tight game, and I am going to go for a draw.

Lawro’s prediction: 1-1

Race for fourth will go to the line

Thursday is not make or break for a Champions League place for either side, because both of them will still have five more games remaining.

There are also two other teams in the race – Liverpool, and a rejuvenated Arsenal.

The race for the top four: The run-in
Liverpool Man City Man Utd Arsenal
Watford (a) Man Utd (h) Man City (a) Leicester (h)
Southampton (h) M’boro (a) Swansea (h) Tottenham (a)
West Ham (a) C Palace (h) Arsenal (a) Man Utd (h)
M’boro (h) Leicester (h) Tottenham (a) Southampton (a)
West Brom (h) Southampton (a) Stoke (a)
Watford (a) C Palace (h) Sunderland (h)
Everton (h)

On the back of reaching the FA Cup final, I think the Gunners are going to get back a lot of the momentum and confidence they have been missing for several weeks.

I think City will finish third, behind Chelsea and Tottenham, but the race for fourth could go into the final week and even the last day of the season.

There are definitely more twists and turns to come. United have not lost for a long time, which is a great achievement, but their fixture list looks like it is the toughest of the teams in the running.

United still have to go to Arsenal and Tottenham, where I can see them dropping points one way or another.

The Gunners are down in seventh, albeit with three games in hand on Everton, but I see them making a late run too – I love the fact nothing can be decided for a while.

Mark Lawrenson was speaking to BBC Sport’s Chris Bevan.

Lawro’s other midweek PL predictions

Premier League predictions
Result Lawro
TUESDAY
Chelsea v Southampton 4-2 2-0
WEDNESDAY
Arsenal v Leicester x-x 2-0
Middlesbrough v Sunderland x-x 0-0
Crystal Palace v Tottenham x-x 1-2
THURSDAY
Man City v Man Utd x-x 1-1

Source: BBC Football Read Original Article: First-season failure? The high stakes of Thursday's Manchester derby

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