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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jamie Jackson

Højlund v Haaland face-off is just one of many Manchester derby subplots

Manchester derby, Jim Ratcliffe, City’s Erling Haaland, United’s Hojlund and Avram Glazer (L) and Joel Glazer
While Erling Haaland (left of centre) and Rasmus Højlund hope to star on the pitch, off it Jim Ratcliffe (left) is still hoping to purchase 25% of Manchester United from Avram Glazer and Joel Glazer (right) Composite: Getty Images

Even in the Manchester derby’s rich tradition of drama, subplots and intrigue, Sunday’s 191st edition can be billed as one of the most significant of recent memory. When Manchester United welcome Manchester City to Old Trafford, an 18-year-old headline story enters a different, potential endgame phase, while a new on-field striker rivalry ignites.

The meeting of these frosty neighbours bookends the expected adieu to the Glazers’ near two-decade stranglehold on United, while up front a first showdown occurs between two young Scandinavian centre-forwards: the home side’s derby debutant Dane, Rasmus Højlund, and City’s Norwegian superstar, Erling Haaland.

By March’s league return meeting, Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s move to purchase 25% of United at a £1.3bn premium in return for control of football policy is expected to have been sealed, and the implications for Erik ten Hag’s side and the long-term future of a storied institution should be clearer.

By then we will know whether Ratcliffe’s desire to wrest a quarter share of the club from the six Glazer siblings will become official in time to affect transfer dealings in the January window. Nothing is certain regarding the Glazers and business – next month marks the anniversary of their protracted plans to sell – but last winter’s month of business is, presumably, one the Ineos owner would hold up as anathema to his ambitions for United.

With Cristiano Ronaldo having exited on the same November day that the Glazers placed the club on the market, a replacement was needed, especially as a title charge was on when the January window opened. Ten Hag’s side stood 11 points behind Arsenal going into meetings with Bournemouth, City, Crystal Palace and the Gunners. When United defeated the Cherries and Arsenal drew with Newcastle, nine points from the next three games would have closed the gap to a maximum three.

But instead of acquiring a hungry young marksman – £35m was Cody Gakpo’s asking price, for example – Wout Weghorst, a journeyman who misfired poorly enough for Burnley to be on a temporary deal at Besiktas, was brought in on loan.

United faltered – drawing at Palace and losing at Arsenal – owing to this acceptance of mediocrity which points to the questionable transfer strategy overseen by the owners. Ratcliffe, notably, flagged his own example during a presentation at the club’s Carrington training base in March, citing how the 30-year-old Casemiro was handed a four-year deal the previous summer, worth around £350,000 a week.

So we turn to Højlund and Haaland, whose presence is a sign the clubs’ disparate times. In 2019, United’s bid to acquire Haaland for £20m failed when the player chose to move from Red Bull Salzburg to Borussia Dortmund. Last June he accepted City’s entreaties, in a £51m transfer that powered Guardiola’s side to last season’s treble.

City bought the finished article in Haaland whereas this summer United signed what Ten Hag characterises as the “potential” of Højlund in a £72m deal from Atalanta. So far the transfer can be rated as prudent because Højlund’s blend of speed, muscularity, finishing and a winner’s attitude is what United require.

Erling Haaland scores a penalty against Fulham
Erling Haaland scores from the spot against Fulham – one of his nine Premier League goals of the current season. Last season he managed 52 in all competitions. Photograph: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images/Reuters

In six Premier League appearances, though, Højlund is yet to score – a function of the uneven side he has walked into. Ten Hag’s United are, like their young marksman, a far from finished project. City, conversely, are a primed winning machine that has the genius Pep Guardiola driving it on in an endless quest for perfection. At Old Trafford, after a minute’s applause for Sir Bobby Charlton, the curtain will be raised on a riveting show featuring United’s attempt to halt the visiting juggernaut, which they did in January’s 2-1 victory in the corresponding fixture.

The overall count for this classic series that began on 12 November 1881 when St Marks (City) lost 3-0 to Newton Heath (United) stands at 78 to those from the city’s red zone, 59 to those of the blue, with 53 draws. City, though, are catching United at a rate that charts the tale of the clubs’ trajectories since Sheikh Mansour bought the former in 2008 and Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013 after 26 and a half years in charge of the latter. By the time the Scot stepped down City had claimed the first title of the Abu Dhabi royal’s proprietorship under Roberto Mancini, and United, post-Ferguson, began to sink. In the 25 derbies in all competitions since, England’s record 20-times champions have won only nine and City 13. In this near-decade City have enjoyed six further title triumphs – the first under Manuel Pellegrini, the rest authored by Guardiola.

City’s supremacy and United’s struggle to again be a force is embodied by Haaland and Højlund. Haaland arrived as a phenomenon and finished his opening campaign with a record 36 Premier League goals in an overall haul of 52 as he made the hardest part of the sport – scoring – appear simple. This season Haaland is up to 11 in 13 appearances.

Rasmus Højlund scores against Galatasaray in the Champions League last month
Rasmus Højlund is yet to score in the league for United but has three goals in Europe this season, including this effort against Galatasaray last month. Photograph: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images/Reuters

Højlund has three goals – all in the Champions League – and is living off crumbs as Ten Hag continues to search for the right team combination and best patterns of play to feed the 20-year-old. The manager has been hampered by injuries, the conduct of Jadon Sancho (still suspended) and Antony’s need to address accusations of violence towards more than one woman – all of which the Brazilian denies.

Guardiola has his A-list creative force, Kevin De Bruyne, on the long-term absentee list with a hamstring problem and the challenge of convincing his players there is still a “mountain” to conquer after the Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup sweep.

In 2005 the Glazer siblings’ father, Malcolm, loaded close to £500m of debt on United in his leveraged buyout. Today the figure is closer to £1bn. For the sizeable constituency of fans disaffected by this, whatever Sunday’s result they can hope that it marks the beginning of the final chapters of the ownership model.

Look out, then, for Ratcliffe’s presence at about 3.30pm. If he is there this is one statement. Where he might be seated another. Could he be in the posh berths reserved for VIPs? By spring’s league return one of Britain’s richest people is certainly expected to be the owner of one of those spots, controlling the football direction of United in a new era.

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