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Premier League title race: All eyes on Manchester as United and City battle it out for top spot in back-to-back matches on BT Sport
Man City's clash with Aston Villa and Man United's trip to Fulham are both available exclusively live on BT Sport tonight.
Liverpool have floundered in their defence in recent weeks and Sunday’s goalless draw at home to United was their fourth match without a win.
It has left the door wide open for the Manchester clubs - the Red Devils sit top, two points ahead of City having played a game more.
The coaches are in denial. “I don’t think about the position in the table,” Pep Guardiola said after City’s win over Crystal Palace. “One step further,” was how Ole Gunnar Solskjaer summarised United’s role in the title race earlier this month.
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But the facts are that not since the midway point of the 2012/13 season have the two Manchester clubs occupied first and second with three or fewer points separating them.
With plenty more twists and turns sure to come, attention turns to tonight where City and United are both in action back-to-back exclusively live on BT Sport.
First up, the Blues have the chance to overtake their rivals when they host Aston Villa at the Etihad, two hours before United visit Craven Cottage to face Fulham.
After a laboured start to the campaign, which saw them drop as many points in their opening 11 matches as they did throughout the entire 2017/18 season, the City juggernaut has clicked back into gear.
Five consecutive Premier League wins, most recently a 4-0 thumping of Crystal Palace, has Guardiola’s men representing the 100-point City of 2018 vintage. They are now the bookmakers’ favourite to reclaim the title they relinquished last year.
Room to recover
City dropped more points in their opening 11 games of this season than in the entire of the 2017/18 campaign.
The new centre-back partnership of Ruben Dias and a reborn John Stones have conceded once in 10 games in all competitions together.
City haven’t let in a goal in nearly 400 minutes of football and boast comfortably the best defensive record in the division.
Stones, who scored his first two Premier League goals for City against Palace, has gone from outcast to a contender to supplant rival Harry Maguire in Gareth Southgate’s England team.
In spectacular fashion, the consistently-brilliant Kevin De Bruyne brought up his 100th assist for the club against Palace, while midfield partner Ilkay Gundogan is suddenly amongst the goals – with four in his last eight.
Up front, the Carabao Cup finalists have been beset with selection issues. Gabriel Jesus’ positive Covid-19 test ruled him out for a period over Christmas and New Year while Sergio Aguero has not started a match since October. “He is not ready [to face Villa],” Guardiola said of the Argentine. “He is still self-isolating.”
It’s meant Pep has been forced to reach into his box of tricks and deploy a false nine in recent matches. Against Chelsea it was De Bruyne, at Old Trafford in the Carabao Cup semi-final victory it was Riyad Mahrez and against Brighton it was Bernardo Silva.
Even without a recognised forward, City have scored 10 in their previous four league games and are within touching distance of the top. Title rivals will be quaking in their boots at the prospect of adding the club’s all-time top scorer Aguero into the mix in the coming weeks.
Rivals United have gone about their business in an altogether different way.
Solskjaer’s side have leaked 24 goals, good enough for the seventh-worst record in the division, yet still sit top.
For the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure, the Red Devils look genuine title contenders.
It was a prospect which appeared far from likely a few months ago. United began their Premier League campaign with two defeats in three including a 6-1 humiliation at home to Tottenham which Solskjaer labelled his “worst day ever”.
Yet with no side stamping their authority on the league, United have been allowed to recover. At this stage of last season, leaders Liverpool had accumulated 12 more points than United’s table-topping 37.
While the Premier League was won by 100, 98 and 99-point totals in each of the last three seasons, we are on course for a total in the mid-70s to be enough this time around.
Since crashing out of the Champions League group stages, United are unbeaten in the Premier League and are developing a healthy habit of beating all the league’s lesser lights while avoiding defeat against the big boys.
United have won nine of their last 12, drawing the other three – against Leicester, City and Liverpool last Sunday.
The wins have often been too close for comfort, with one-goal victories over Aston Villa, Burnley and Wolves in recent weeks, but in Ferguson fashion they’ve found goals when they’ve needed them most.
The difference maker is undoubtedly Bruno Fernandes. The Portuguese midfielder has had a transformative impact since arriving in January 2020, perhaps measured best by the fact he’s claimed four of the last 12 Premier League Player of the Month awards - including both the previous two.
Marcus Rashford has weighed in with 14 goals of his own, including a crucial injury-time winner against Wolves last month, while Anthony Martial and Edinson Cavani are still clicking into gear.
After leaking 11 in their first three, United have conceded one in four with Maguire and either Eric Bailly or Victor Lindelof as central defensive partners.
Scott McTominay is improving seemingly game-on-game, while Paul Pogba’s winner against Burnley will give Solskjaer hope that club may yet get some more value from their wantaway record signing.
On Wednesday evening, both Manchester clubs will fancy their chances of staying in the top two. City’s opponents Villa are in disarray, besieged by a Covid-19 outbreak at Bodymoor Heath they’ve not played a league match since New Year’s Day defeat at United. United’s opponents Fulham, while improving, are still four points from safety and have won just twice all season.
In what has been an alien campaign in the English top flight, there’s a degree of normality about a battle between United and City for the title, but if the first half of the season is anything to go by, there’ll be plenty of twists and turns to follow if either club are to see the trophy head east along the M62.
Tune in from 5.30pm on BT Sport 1 HD to watch the latest chapter in this most fascinating title race unfold.