Dubai: The big match of the Premier League this weekend is between leaders Manchester City and fourth-placed Manchester United at the Etihad Stadium and former City star Nigel De Jong knows they cannot afford to lose against their local rivals.
It will be a keenly contested derby and with Pep Guardiola’s side just six points ahead of second placed Liverpool, De Jong – who will be watching the match at a live screening at the Dubai Expo 2020 – cannot strive enough how important it is for the team to keep winning, even if it means winning ugly. “I have been watching them carefully and they’re not playing at their best,” says the former Dutch international who was part of the backbone of the side that won the FA Cup in 2011 and the Premier League title in 2012.
“We haven’t seen their best performances lately and we can all see that the gap between City and Liverpool has shrunk right down,” says De Jong whose 137 appearances for the Club left a lasting impression. “City have set such a high standard for themselves that we expect them win every game 5-0 but sometimes you have scrape results over the course of a season. City are still winning games and that is the sign of a very good team – to win when they are not playing at their best level.”
City will be without Ruben Dias and the defender could be a big miss as they try to keep Cristiano Ronaldo at bay. Dias has played 25 of their 27 Premier League fixtures this season but could be out for several weeks due to a hamstring injury. But De Jong, who joined City in 2009 from Hamburg feels United are not as big of a threat as they once were. “The power has shifted in Manchester, we have all seen what City has done in the last 10 years, it has had a big impact in the city and also in the world of football. But because United are not competing for the Premier League title for the last 5 years then I would say the Manchester derby has lost its impact to when Sir Alex Ferguson was there and I would say a bigger game than United is against Liverpool because they have been title challengers and winners in the last 3 years. The Manchester derby is great but it doesn’t have the same impact it had 10 years ago.”
De Jong, who had spells with AC Milan and LA Galaxy, is looking forward to watching the huge clash tomorrow. “I’m excited to see the live screening of the Manchester derby in Dubai with all the fans at the Expo – but the main thing is that we need to win.”
The tough midfielder who currently plays for Qatari club Al-Shahania is also keen to explore the Expo which ends this month. “It’s a major event and I can’t wait to see all the different nationalities and cultures,” says the 37-year-old. “We all know Dubai is a place where a lot of events can happen because of the financial strength of the UAE. And of course, with me being a Dutchman I must go to the Dutch pavilion and see what’s going on in there but I am willing and open to see every other nationality and culture as well and what kind of events are happening. But the combination of the Expo and being part of a live screening of the Manchester derby is something I am really looking forward to.”
Just like the vast majority of City fans, De Jong is hopeful that Guardiola will remain in charge as the coach of the team for a long time to come. “If you look at the stats, they speak for themselves, you have to give credit where it is due, the work he has done in the last 5 years is second to none. I hope he stays for a long time at City, he has really transformed the team and that is very hard to do.”
VAR has been in the news for all the wrong reasons once again following City’s last Premier League outing, a 1-0 win at Goodison Park where the home side were denied a blatant penalty. And who knows, the derby could be settled by the technology and De Jong feels it has room for improvement. “First of all I can understand Everton fans’ pain. I was as baffled as everyone else was, even though I am City biased, but I think it was a definite penalty. The problem that we have right now with the VAR is there is zero transparency. We don’t get to listen to the discussion between the match referee and the guys in charge of VAR when an incident takes place. The technology is there but the issue we have is with the people operating it. We need people in there who have knowledge of the game, that can understand situations in a game and we need more transparency.”
City have a poor home record against United - winning just one of their last seven meetings at the Etihad - but derby form doesn’t concern De Jong. “A derby is a one-off match and because of the emotion and passion of the City fans at home they will have an advantage. And City tend to dominate possession of the ball in most games so they will have the upper hand there too.”
He is keen to see City attack United’s frailties and believes their defence in particular is suspect. “They have a lot of weaknesses in different areas of the pitch. Defensively they’re not that good, and there has been a lot of player rotation. They are not as solid as they could be so I think City will aim to put a lot of pressure on their back four. City are very good at playing between the lines especially with the crafty players they have like Silva, Gundogan, Foden and De Bruyne. So if City want to hurt United they will need to put the pressure on their defence by playing through the lines and exploit their weaknesses in midfield too. Hopefully it’s going to be a good match but we need 3 points to keep away from Liverpool.”
Kane to City?
A lot has been made of the lack of a proper striker at City and it begs the question just how different things could have been had they bought Harry Kane from Tottenham when they had the chance. But, this isn’t something worth thinking about according to De Jong. “Kane is not a City player at this stage and may never be in the future so we can only talk about the current squad which I think is good enough to compete with anybody at every level of football.” He does, however, appreciate an old-school number nine. “Football is full of ‘what ifs’ but if you’re asking me if I would I like to see a top class striker like we had in Aguero, Tevez and Dzeko, then yes I would love that. But is that going to be the missing piece? That is something that Pep has to answer.”
The Manchester derby will be screened live at Dubai Expo 2020 for City fans tomorrow (March 6) at Festival Garden. Kick-off is at 8:30pm and supporters will be required to purchase a ticket to enter the site and present either proof of vaccination status or a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours.