The last meeting between Manchester City and Manchester United played out less like a derby and more like an exhibition.
Pep Guardiola’s side were utterly dominant at Old Trafford back in November, establishing a 2-0 lead before half-time before turning the second half into a training session as they slowly suffocated United by depriving them of possession.
An A-list cast of stars including Phil Foden, Kevin de Bruyne and Bernardo Silva all started the game but it was an – at the time – unlikely creative source who orchestrated United’s downfall.
Joao Cancelo’s third season at City has been a superb one, reflected by his signing of a two-year contract extension at the beginning of February.
After enduring a tough first season in Manchester which ended with him asking to leave the club, Cancelo bounced back at the beginning of 2021 in an inverted right-back role.
However, this campaign has seen him switch flanks and become City’s first-choice left-back, a role few would have envisioned him filling but one that has seen him play the best football of his career.
Pushing into midfield when City have the ball, Cancelo has become a crucial cog in City’s intricate and often devastating attack. The combinations of passes, movements, overlaps and underlaps that he pulls off with City’s left-sided number eight – usually Bernardo Silva or Ilkay Gundogan – and left-winger – any one of Foden, Raheem Sterling or Jack Grealish – are at times mesmerizing.
Cancelo has become a unique attacking threat for City, as seen during the 2-0 win back in November.
Time and time again City found joy attacking down the left-hand side, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka unable to cope with the constant rotations and movements of Cancelo, Foden and Gundogan.
Both of City’s goals came directly from Cancelo crosses from the left flank. The first saw Eric Bailly slice the ball into his own net in sheer panic, while for the second Cancelo cut onto his right foot and sent a teasing cross to the back post that Bernardo Silva squeezed past David de Gea.
Since that game Sterling has rediscovered something nearing his best form and has re-established himself as an important player in Guardiola’s team. It is likely that Sterling will start on the left flank when United visit the Etihad Stadium on Sunday and Cancelo could have a large say in how he gets on.
The last couple of home derbies – the 2-1 defeat in December 2019 and the 2-0 loss last March – saw Sterling isolated and overpowered in a one-versus-one battle with United right-back Wan-Bissaka.
Just like you, we can’t get enough of Manchester City! That’s why we’ve decided to supplement our expansive City coverage on the Manchester Evening News with a more fan-oriented platform catered specifically to City fans – City Is Ours.
Writers and presenters who share your passion for the blue side of Manchester will be producing written, visual and audio content to reflect the mood in the stands as well as the press box.
Sterling was left on the bench for November’s meeting but there is no reason why he and Cancelo can’t work together to make the defender’s day as miserable as Cancelo and Foden did four months ago.
Everybody knows that when he plays on the left, Sterling likes to cut inside. Yet with Cancelo and one of the eights ganging up in attack, City’s left-hand side all of a sudden becomes very unpredictable and hard to defend against.
Sterling has not scored in 23 career appearances against City’s arch-rivals, a frankly horrendous record. But if Cancelo is on his game on Sunday, then it wouldn’t be a surprise to see that barren run come to an end.
Do you think Joao Cancelo can help unlock Raheem Sterling against Manchester United? Follow our City Is Ours writer Alex Brotherton on Twitter to get involved in the discussion and give us your thoughts in the comments section below.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.