October 31, 2014

The place where Manchester City finally arrived may also be the place Manchester United may not return for the foreseeable future.

But this 171st edition of the Manchester derby, to be played Sunday at the Etihad, sees both teams at varying crossroads as the pressure again has been turned up under Manchester United manager Louis Van Gaal heading into a trip across town to Manchester City.

The pendulum of the season-long referendum on Van Gaal has again swung towards despair and ruin following United's elimination from the Europa League by Liverpool. The Red Devils (13-8-8) were unable to overturn a 2-0 first-leg deficit from their loss at Anfield, finishing with a 1-1 draw after Philippe Coutinho's deft dink over David De Gea right before the halftime essentially killed off the round of 16 tie.

"The big difference is they scored that goal in the last seconds of the first half," Van Gaal told MUTV. "You try to raise them (the players) out of the disappointment but you know, the fans know, everyone knows you have to score three goals and that is more difficult."

Scoring one goal - Thursday's came courtesy of a penalty earned and converted by Anthony Martial - has been enough of a chore for sixth-place Manchester United, let alone bagging three considering they've scored once in the run of play over their last five matches.

The plodding play that has made supporters and ex-United players-turned-pundits apoplectic was again evident as United were often second best throughout their 180 minutes against a Liverpool side progressing quickly under Jurgen Klopp.

Now winless in four (0-2-2) in all competitions after four victories on the bounce, United are in a dangerous stretch of schedule that could banish them into the wilderness without European play.

A loss at the Etihad would drop United seven points behind City, who currently own the final Champions League spot, with eight matches remaining. On Tuesday, they have an FA Cup quarterfinal replay at West Ham United, where Upton Park will be at its most hostile as Hammers play their final cup tie on those grounds.

Manchester United still have games at Tottenham Hotspur and their regular-season contest at Upton Park in addition to hosting Leicester City for their run-in. That's made very real the possibility they could be playing only domestic matches in a season for the first time since UEFA's ban of English teams from continental tournaments from 1985-90 following the Heysel Stadium tragedy.

"We're going to want to make sure we go into that international break on a high and the only way we can close the gap on the top four is by beating somebody who's already in there," United defender Chris Smalling said. "It's our time to step up.

"There's still a lot to play for. We need to show that consistency in our performances and, if we can build on that first half, we give ourselves a chance in the league and in the FA Cup."

Meanwhile, on the blue side of the city, one would think Manchester City would be in better spirits. Despite reaching the Champions League quarterfinals for the first time after being eliminated in the round of 16 each of the three years prior, there was little in the way of celebrating at the Etihad following City's scoreless draw versus Dynamo Kiev that allowed them to progress on a 3-1 aggregate.

That was due to defender and talisman Vincent Kompany being forced off after just five minutes with the recurrence of a calf injury that has plagued him throughout his time with the Citizens. It's the 14th time since joining the club in 2008 he has dealt with a calf injury, and this time he will be sidelined a month as Manchester City (15-6-8) try to protect their top-four status and add silverware to their League Cup title.

"Vincent unfortunately again has a muscle injury in his calf, the same one he has had before," manager Manuel Pellegrini told City's official website. "... He must be very strong mentally because he has to accept that there is nothing anybody can do immediately."

Fellow central defender Nicolas Otamendi also had to be replaced in the match's first half hour, but Pellegrini expects him to be available to start Sunday. And it will be an all-hands-on-deck situation for City, who are 15 points behind Leicester City with two matches in hand on the Foxes and nine left to play in the league.

Yet it's difficult to envision City making a charge without Kompany marshaling the defence. The Citizens are just 7-3-6 without him in league play, with a plus-6 goal difference, compared to an 8-3-2 mark and plus-15 goal difference with the towering Belgian.

Pellegrini, though, was accentuating the positive as his team regrouped without his two first-choice central defenders and turned in the team's third consecutive clean sheet in all competitions.

"We normally are a team who always score so we get criticism about keeping clean sheets. We have kept three in a row now," the Chilean added.

While the goals have been plentiful at home for City - they've outscored league opponents 39-17 in going 10-1-4 - all four losses have come to top eight teams Leicester City, Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United and Liverpool by an 11-4 margin.

The teams played a dour scoreless draw in the reverse fixture while combining for two shots on goal - none until the 82nd minute. Jesse Lingard came closest for United, his flick hitting the crossbar and bouncing away, while City failed to threaten without an injured Sergio Aguero.

City have had the upper hand of late, going 5-1-2 in the last eight league matches.

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