LONDON: Erling Haaland has Manchester United in his sights this weekend as Manchester City host their cross-town rivals at the start of a season-defining spell for the Premier League champions.

Pep Guardiola’s men, chasing an unprecedented fourth strai­ght English top-flight crown, boast an impressive recent record against United but know they cannot afford a slip-up in a tight title tussle.

Leaders Liverpool are strongly fancied to see off struggling Nottingham Forest despite their injury problems, while free-scoring Arsenal face relegation-threatened Sheffield United.The Manchester derby appeared to be shaping up to be a tasty face-off between Haaland and Rasmus Hojlund until the in-form United forward sustained a muscle injury.

Norway international Haaland scored five times in the 6-2 FA Cup win against Luton Town in midweek to take his tally to 27 in 30 appearances in all competitions this season despite two months out injured.

In stark contrast Marcus Rashford, United’s leading man last season, has mustered just five goals, leaving his side blunt in attack at the Etihad in the absence of Hojlund, who is likely to be missing on Sunday.

City manager Pep Guardiola warned the United game would be “completely different” from their Luton romp but in truth the derby, while a blockbuster clash on paper, has become one-sided in recent years.

City have won five of the past six matches against their local rivals in all competitions, scoring 18 goals.

Haaland has developed a taste for playing against United, netting five times against them in four meetings — including a hat-trick at the Etihad last season.

Guardiola’s men face Liver­pool, Newcastle United and Ars­e­nal after the United game but, with Haaland in his current form, any fixture looks winnable.

Meanwhile, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool keep finding ways to win despite a punishing injury list that has deprived them of many top stars.

Lewis Koumas scored on his debut and fellow 18-year-old Jayden Danns registered his first two goals as a depleted Liverpool side beat Southampton 3-0 at Anfield in the FA Cup in midweek.

The win came just days after an under-strength team beat Chelsea at Wembley to win the League Cup — in what they hope is the first of four trophies in Klopp’s final season at the helm.

The Premier League pacesetters, who travel to relegation-threatened Nottingham Forest on Saturday, have a chance to stretch their lead, with City and Arsenal not in action until Sun­day and Monday, respectively.

Klopp said Liverpool were reaping the rewards from a style of play that has been adopted right throughout the club.

“It’s special,” said Klopp. “And, of course, it’s for me strange as well, I never had that before — that you play with that many kids and still can win football games. It’s a really interesting experience, to be honest.”

Arsenal look almost certain to win a seventh consecutive Premier League match against bottom club Sheffield United at the Emirates on Monday.

This time last season the Gunners had launched a winning run that looked like it might take them to a first top-flight title since 2004, before a late-season collapse allowed City to claim the title.

The recent glut of goals — 25 in their past six league matches — means Arsenal have scored 62 goals in the Premier League this season, one fewer than Liverpool, and they now have the best goal difference.

The Gunners have spread the goals out but Bukayo Saka has hit form at the perfect time, with seven league goals in his past five games to take his season’s league tally to 13.

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta has urged his team to stay “ruthless and efficient” in the drive towards the finish line and at the moment they look like the real deal.

Fixtures (1500 GMT unless stated): Saturday: Brentford v Chelsea, Everton v West Ham United, Fulham v Brighton and Hove Albion, Newcastle United v Wolverhampton Wanderers, Nottingham Forest v Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur v Crystal Palace, Luton Town v Aston Villa (1730); Sunday Burnley v Bournemouth (1300), Manchester City v Manchester United (1530); Monday Sheffield United v Arsenal (2000).

Published in Dawn, March 2nd, 2024

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