It is the 176th Manchester derby on Saturday, but for Pep Guardiola it is the least important City vs. United clash of them all.
However, ask a City supporter and they would tell you that the game is up there with the self-styled “biggest-ever derby” — when Vincent Kompany’s headed goal sealed a 1-0 victory in April 2012 and put City in pole position to win their first league title in 44 years less than two weeks later.
Another victory for City this weekend against their local rivals would confirm this season’s Premier League title in the sweetest of circumstances, with Jose Mourinho’s United forced to endure the humiliation of placing the crown on the heads of their neighbours.
That is why it matters so much to the City fans. They suffered plenty of torment at the hands of United for the best part of 30 years, so winning the title against them this weekend is all that matters.
But Guardiola has a totally different mindset and field a second-string XI — though that would still be a formidable line-up — against United. The manager admitted as much in the wake of City’s 3-1 win at Everton and when he names his team against United, it will be selected with the focus solely on the second-leg of the Champions League quarterfinal against Liverpool.
The City fans may want to rub United’s noses in it, but with the game falling directly in between the two legs of that tie, there are other priorities.
Guardiola has done the maths (six points; two wins, or just one against nearest rivals Unieted) and he knows that the Premier League trophy will return to the Etihad Stadium this month, barring an unprecedented collapse by his City team.
So if City fail to beat United this weekend, the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach would still have another six league games to claim the required points. Against Liverpool, however, it all boils down to two games of knockout football to keep City’s ambitions of winning the Champions League alive.
In Guardiola’s risk assessment, the league is as good as won, so the United game has become nothing less than an irrelevant distraction in the midst of six crucial days between Wednesday’s first-leg at Anfield and next Tuesday’s return game at the Etihad.
If Guardiola allows emotion to cloud his judgement, he would gamble on the fitness of the likes of Ederson, Kevin De Bruyne, Leroy Sane and David Silva to improve the chances of victory against United, yet would it be worth it if the exertions required to beat Mourinho’s men diminished City’s prospects against Liverpool three days later?
City owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan appointed Guardiola as manager for many reasons in 2016, but none were perhaps quite as important as the cold-headed, winning mentality that the Catalan is now displaying at the defining stage of the season.
Sheikh Mansour and his City directors are focused on being the biggest and best in Europe; Guardiola shares the same drive and ambition.
But the City fanbase has still to embrace the Champions League and regard it as the pinnacle, as they do at Anfield and Old Trafford, so local supremacy remains the primary focus for many of them.
This week may the turning point when it comes to raising their sights, however. Beating United will mean a lot, but would it seriously top the sensation of eliminating Liverpool on the way to reaching the Champions League final?
For Guardiola, it is not even debatable and that is why the derby against United has been reduced to a sideshow. He knows the danger that Liverpool pose to City’s hopes of Champions League glory.
Jurgen Klopp’s team remain the only ones to inflict a league defeat on City this season and Liverpool have the upper hand between the two clubs at Anfield. With 37 goals from 41 appearances in all competitions, Mohamed Salah’s form in front of goal has earned comparisons (albeit overblown) with Barcelona star Lionel Messi, while Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino have also proved their capabilities in the Champions League this season.
If anyone can beat City, Liverpool at least know they have a blueprint which works and that is why Guardiola cannot place an iota of importance on the United game. It won’t matter if City fail to stop Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku next Saturday, but it will mean everything if they can stifle Salah, Mane and Firmino.
Some City supports will not like it if Guardiola rests his star players against United, but if he does, it should actually be regarded as a significant, and painful, example of the current state of affairs to the red half of Manchester.
Not so long ago, the derby was the only game that mattered to City, but for this week at least, they have bigger things to worry about. And that will hurt United as much as being the reluctant guests at a title party.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_