Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer poked fun at Manchester City ahead of the derby by saying “at least we play every year now”.
While Pep Guardiola’s management and Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s huge financial investment have turned City into one of the best sides in the world, they were in the third tier just 20 years ago.
Solskjaer joined United months after their near neighbours dropped out of the Premier League in 1996, with the club only returning to the top table in 2000.
It meant the striker had to wait five years to get his first taste of a Manchester derby in April 2001 – an unglamorous past the Red Devils boss was quick to remind City of ahead of the derby.
“At least we play every year now! It took many years before I played a Manchester derby myself,” the 1999 treble hero said.
“But it’s changed in a way. Of course Man City are a better team now than when I was playing.
“I think football has changed quite a lot. I think it allowed a few more proper tackles – with every little angle, everything being scrutinised now, it’s more of a technical, tactical game than physical and mental one.
“But, still, a derby should be played as a derby. We don’t play basketball, so we’re ready for that if that happens.”
City’s history does not yet compare with that of United, but the blue half of the city have certainly had more to crow about in recent years.
Solskjaer’s sixth-placed side are 11 points behind Guardiola’s men after just 15 matches, making building on the impressive midweek win against Tottenham as important as bragging rights.
“Manchester derbies are always special games but you can’t say it matters more (than Spurs),” the Norwegian said.
“For the fans, of course (it matters more) and we’re up for it, the fans are up for. They were fantastic at home and I’m sure we’ll hear them on Saturday as well.”
Solskjaer’s only Manchester derby in the dugout ended in a 2-0 defeat in April, while City inflicted a 3-1 loss on Jose Mourinho’s United earlier in the campaign.
Anthony Martial scored the Red Devils’ only goal in that match and was a doubt for Saturday’s Etihad Stadium encounter after picking up a knock against Aston Villa last weekend.
Solskjaer expected to see him out “for a little while” but the France forward looks set to feature against City, unlike compatriot Paul Pogba who remains sidelined with an ankle injury.
“We hope to have Anthony definitely for part of the game – I’m not sure if he’s able to start,” Solskjaer said. “Paul probably won’t be, no.”
Asked when he is expecting Pogba to return from an ankle issue that has kept him out since September, he said: “As soon as possible, as quickly as possible.
“He’s out on the grass training. I said in 2019 so hopefully we’ll see him before the New Year definitely.”
Pogba scored twice when United last won at City in April 2018 – a remarkable 3-2 comeback victory sealed by Chris Smalling.
The defender is currently impressing during a season-long loan at Roma and Solskjaer expects him to return to Old Trafford next summer.
“Chris has been fantastic, but we know sometimes that if you change the environment it can go both ways,” he said.
“Chris is the type to relish these challenges. He’s cultured, he enjoys life down there, it’s a different life and a new experience for him.
“He’s a boy who couldn’t be here without being a regular and we decided on that. I am so, so happy for him because we can see the top player he is.”
Asked if he expects Smalling to return to United, he said: “Yeah.”
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