It’s never an easy challenge facing Manchester City, and it’s not expected to be on Saturday when Manchester United play their bitter cross-town rivals in a high-stakes Premier League clash at Old Trafford. It’s a top-four battle but with both teams not where they currently want to be. While City are five points behind a depth-lacking Arsenal in second place, a run to the title seems rather likely for what is arguably the most talented squad in the world. For Manchester United, they appear perhaps a little ahead of schedule, sitting in the top four on the back of four straight league wins with renewed optimism under manager Erik ten Hag.
The optimism would continue in abundance with a surprising win here, but one thing needs to remain constant – continue to have an edge thanks to Lisandro Martinez.
Sure, this is a team without top-tier superstars, even more so since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo in December. But you cannot ignore the results and how they are better since he was benched. United have won eight in a row in all competitions excluding friendlies during the World Cup, but beating the likes of Aston Villa, Fulham, Burnley and Charlton doesn’t scream “we’re back.” Looking at what Martinez has done hints that they could be closer.
But why? There’s undoubtedly been something different, and it is the aggressive edge that Martinez is bringing.
In order to get something from this game, it’s got to be eleven players playing at their best, but the biggest of expectations will fall on none other than the team’s newest defensive star. He’s a player that has inspired a new hope at one of the biggest teams in the world, a player who knows firsthand what it takes to reach the absolute top. Martinez, United’s diminutive defender from Argentina, has helped turn the tide quickly after a slow start at the club. The World Cup champion was stellar for his national team as they conquered the globe in Qatar just a month ago, and he’ll need to be equally special here. Most people doubt United can pull it off, but doubt in his team combined with individual hunger is what fuels the former Defensa y Justicia man.
Described by the British press as a piranha on a trampoline, opponents take notice of his fierce approach to the game and the tone he looks to set with crushing tackles and maybe some crossing of the line. Recently, Aston Villa winger Leon Bailey was critical of officials while facing United because of the lack of consequence for Martinez’s actions.
“Very disappointed in the referees today,” Bailey said back in December. “I couldn’t breathe for a second after getting elbowed twice in my rib.”
And that is exactly what he brings, and it is what he has always brought to the table. Yeah, he’s quick on his feet, exceptional in the air despite his size and always determined to win the ball when he goes in, but he also has that borderline violent edge of trying to take players out of their game and push the limit time and time again by being overly physical. It’s a refreshing change for a United defense that at times with Harry Maguire has looked like nothing more than a Sunday league side, welcoming attacks with open arms and a lack of ability. But with Martinez linking up with Raphael Varane, a laughable defense has become formidable, and at the right time. But that wasn’t always the case.
It was just over three months ago when the two had their first Premier League meeting of the season, a 6-3 win for City that left United bruised and battered with no answers. Varane and Martinez started that day, with the former being taken off after a shockingly poor display. Martinez was better, but it’s difficult to take any real positives out of a defeat like that. While Varane was getting beat left and right, Martinez was largely sharp, aside from one instance where Erling Haaland made him think he was crashing the goal only to then sit in the pocket of the box to fire home one of his three goals.
But when Haaland was sent through on goal in the second half, there was Martinez, who turns 25 next week, with an exceptional run ahead of time to have him covered, forcing a shot wide. When Haaland was crashing the box, there was Martinez to get in front of him in an attempt to hinder his movement. The awareness is there, the execution often is too, and if others can feed off of it, there is something to be hand.
Since that poor display, they’ve had answers, and the key has been an improving Martinez, who hasn’t been afraid to deliver bruises to the opposition and let them know that they are going to have to do more to beat them. This time around, City will likely need to do more.
His awareness, his anticipation of runs and his ability to read attacks have all improved, though the opposition have not been up to the level of City, and this will be their biggest test yet. The film is there though to learn from the mistakes from the first time around and make this match even more competitive. Martinez has to continue as is while others, especially midfielders looking to offer defensive support, must take a page from Martinez’s book.
If United are to come away with a win, even a point, they will need to put forth as sharp of a performance as they have had this season. With City coming off elimination in the EFL Cup at the hands of Premier League bottom-dwellers Southampton, the expectation is for Pep Guardiola’s side to respond.
For the Red Devils, the hope is to continue along this path. Ten Hag saw firsthand what the player could do while coaching him at Ajax, and the world saw in Qatar just what he is made of. His arrival over the summer is the biggest reason why they have become a backline with serious potential with producing showing. Now it is up to both to deliver in an attempt to inch closer to regaining control of their beloved city and truly allowing their fans to believe that a return to the top could arrive in the coming years and not the coming decades.
How to watch and odds
- Date: Saturday, Jan. 14 | Time: 7:30 a.m. ET
- Location: Old Trafford — Manchester, England
- TV: NBC Sports | Live stream: fuboTV (try for free)
- Odds: United +320; Draw: +270; City -120 (via Caesars Sportsbook)
Featured Game | Manchester United vs. Manchester City
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Publish Date:2023-01-14 02:16:35