Manchester - Following Thursday's Europa
League elimination by arch foes Liverpool, Manchester United's supporters find
themselves in the grip of an unfolding nightmare as Sunday's derby trip to
Manchester City approaches.
The 3-1 aggregate loss to Liverpool left
the FA Cup as the only trophy United can win this season and if they lose to
local rivals City at the Etihad Stadium, they will be seven points below the
Champions League places with only eight games of the season remaining.
Failure to qualify for the Champions League
would complete an abject season for United, prompting their under-fire manager
Louis van Gaal to admit that the derby is a game that his side simply have to
Asked if the match was 'do-or-die' in terms
of United's Champions League qualification hopes, Van Gaal replied: "I
think so, yes. We are now four points behind, so you have to win.
"Otherwise the gap is bigger and
bigger and the matches that you have to play are not so big (many).
"I think then it is seven points and
we have to play then eight matches. Then it's very sharp to recover from that
"It is still possible, but I think
it's difficult then. Because West Ham United is also in front, so it is not
only City but West Ham United also."
Blackening United's mood yet further is the
knowledge that City's fans are rubbing their hands together in anticipation of
a Champions League quarter-final against Paris Saint-Germain after reaching the
tournament's last eight for the first time in their history.
No longer the "noisy neighbours"
contemptuously dismissed by former United manager Alex Ferguson, City have
emerged as a genuine force in the Sheikh Mansour era and victory for them on
Sunday would strengthen the perception that they have usurped United as
Manchester's biggest team.
And yet for all City's European exploits,
they remain a bundle of contradictions in the league, having failed to record
back-to-back victories since October, and know that defeat would seriously
compromise their own hopes of a top-four finish.
The title seems an even more unlikely
objective, with leaders Leicester City 12 points above them, having played a
game more, but manager Manuel Pellegrini refuses to accept that his side's
challenge is over.
"In football when you have a
mathematical chance, you cannot think you cannot do it," said the Chilean,
whose side are seeking a third consecutive home win over United.
"It's a winning mentality: win the
next game and then see which team has the most points.
"I think that a derby is always
dangerous, regardless of the position of both teams. If it's in the Premier
League it's doubly dangerous.
"It's hard because they have good
players. United have a very good squad. It doesn't matter which (players) play
or in which way they play; they're always a dangerous team.
"It's a target (to finish above
United), but it's not the most important thing. The most important thing is to
finish first, then you're above all other teams."
City captain Vincent Kompany has been ruled
out after suffering yet another calf injury - his 14th in eight years - in
Tuesday's 0-0 draw with Dynamo Kiev, while fellow centre-back Nicolas Otamendi
faces a fitness test after being forced off in the same game with a dead leg.
Midfield trio Kevin De Bruyne, Samir Nasri
and Fabian Delph will also be absent; although Pellegrini revealed that they
are due to return to action with the club's under-21s during the international
United have injury problems of their own,
with midfielder Ander Herrera a doubt due to a groin injury and captain Wayne
Rooney, left-back Luke Shaw and defender Phil Jones all till side-lined.
But winger-turned-right-back Antonio
Valencia is in contention after making his first appearance after five months
out with a broken foot as a half-time substitute against Liverpool.
Ashley Young and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson
could also feature after returning to training following injury.