Pep Guardiola was his usual relaxed self in the pre-match media conference ahead of the Manchester derby. A battle for the title is out of the question between the two sides as Manchester United sit 19 points behind City heading into the clash.
But that does not change the fact that it’s a derby with bragging rights at stake. Besides, each team is fighting for a different goal at this point as City doubles down on the title while United strives for a top four finish.
With in-form West Ham and Arsenal breathing down their necks, the Red Devils are in a difficult position and seriously in need of points. So the game will be keenly contested.
Dropping points against United could hurt City as Liverpool continue the push for an unlikely overtake.
With just three points separating both sides (game in hand aside) in the race for the title, any slip-ups from the Cityzens could be brutally punished. Jurgen Klopp’s side has been very consistent in the last couple of months winning home and away games to close the gap at the top.
City's 3-2 loss to Tottenham last month blew the title race wide open again as the Reds suddenly had renewed hope of catching and even upstaging City.
So it’s very important for the Blues to maintain the momentum by beating United at the Etihad Stadium to consolidate on the lead at the top of the table.
But there are always setbacks along the way. The latest is the injury to centre-backs Nathan Ake and Ruben Dias.
While Ake would be back in a relatively short period of time, Dias is expected to spend the next four to six weeks on the sidelines as a result of a hamstring injury.
That could be a big deal for City as the 24-year-old has been a mainstay at the heart of the defence. The Portuguese has been a key player for City since joining from Benfica in 2020.
The fact that he was handed the captain’s armband speaks to his influence in the team, on and off the pitch. His importance to the group cannot be overemphasized. Having become a leader, his absence will definitely impact the team in some way.
However, the manager insists that the team will cope in his absence.
“It’s a muscular injury - hamstring - [it will be] four to six weeks,” Guardiola told reporters ahead of Sunday’s game. “It happens. In other seasons our best players have been out for eight or nine months.
“I’d love him but he’s not there, I’m not going to cry. It is what it is. During the season it happens."
The onus is now on John Stones and Aymeric Laporte to show they can equally strike a formidable partnership that will help shut the back door to the opponents. Maintaining a solid defensive record will obviously be important to City’s quest to retain their Premier League title.
It remains to be seen if Dias will recover in time to feature against Liverpool on April 10. The Blues square up against the Anfield side at the Etihad Stadium in what could very well be a title decider.
That raises the stakes for Stones and Laporte as they must step up to the plate. The duo must maintain a solid base that will provide a springboard for the team’s continuous match to excellence.
So far Laporte has been excellent this season. But Stones has been in and out of the team due to injury concerns.
As the season enters the business end, it will be very important for City to maintain the high standard they have set from the beginning of the campaign.
The game against United is one of the few remaining real tests of the team’s resolve and determination to go all the way. Should it pass this and the Liverpool test, it will just be a matter of coasting home to a fourth league title in five years.