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Erik ten Hag should hold Ronaldo back and play him in super-sub role against City

A blood-and-thunder Manchester derby looks certain with Red Devils aiming to hit on the break

Cristiano Ronaldo of Manchester United could play a supersub role against Man City. Photo: Oleg Bilsagaev/Getty Images© Getty Images

CHISINAU, MOLDOVA - SEPTEMBER 15: Cristiano Ronaldo of Manchester United celebrates after scoring their team's second goal from the penalty spot during the UEFA Europa League group E match between Sheriff Tiraspol and Manchester United at Stadionul Sheriff on September 15, 2022 in Tiraspol, Moldova. (Photo by Oleg Bilsagaev/Getty Images)© Getty Images

Raphael Varane should be given the task of trying to curtail Erling Haaland. Photo: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images© Offside via Getty Images

Christian Eriksen of Manchester could be a big player for Manchester United this year in a creative role. Photo: Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images© Getty Images

Paul McGrathSunday World

Even as I write these words, I know they are going to come back and bite me because Cristiano Ronaldo will score a hat-trick today.

But, actually, I wouldn’t start the great man in the Manchester derby, live on Sky Sports Sports at 2.0pm.

I’d keep him for the last 20 minutes, or so, when he could come on and do serious damage to a tiring Manchester City defence at the Etihad.

Of course, my scenario gambles that United will still be alive in the match by then against Erling Haaland and co.

However, all the word in Manchester is that Erik ten Hag is not taking that gamble – and is going to start Ronaldo this lunchtime, up front, from the off.

That would be breaking up the settled Red Devils side who stormed through September, winning all their games.

I know the club hasn’t played a domestic match for a month, but I think it is an unnecessary move by Ten Hag to bring his man back into a starting role.

You have something that is working, stick with it until it doesn’t work.

And there are risks involved, for Ronaldo is not known for putting a shift in during matches.

In this game, the United players are going to have to give everything to cope with the champions’ fluid style.

Can they afford to carry the Portuguese star, as great a player as he is, from the off, if he won’t do his share of donkey work?

I say ‘No’, but Ronaldo will probably prove me wrong, just like he’s made a fool of so many defenders over the years.

Certainly Ten Hag wouldn’t have been bringing Harry Maguire back at centre-half – not after his disastrous display for England against Germany last Monday night.

Injury keeps him out of today’s match – and maybe that is the best for everyone.

Maguire’s clearly out of form, his confidence is shot and taking him to the World Cup must surely be a huge risk for Gareth Southgate, when he has other centre-halves playing for their clubs week in, week out.

You wonder now is Maguire even going to hold his place in England’s World Cup squad for Qatar? Remember the finals are just six weeks away now.

I’m looking forward to seeing Christian Eriksen in action for United again.

The great Dane has really been impressive since being relocated to his proper position after the Brentford fiasco.

As another summer signing, Casemiro, settles into the United team as a defensive midfielder, I predict that Eriksen will become an even more influential figure for United as the season goes on.

For the players in action in Manchester today, and those who lined out in Arsenal-Spurs yesterday, a match like this is the best way possible to come back from an international break.

The last thing you would want, as you link up again with club-mates after international duty, is a home game against one of the Premier League’s lesser lights.

That’s just the sort of match where a top team can get caught, and throw away three points against a club that might have lost only two players to international call-ups.

But a big derby? No way anyone takes it handy in one of these.

Every player playing in North London yesterday and in Manchester today is under no illusions about what is at stake.

The fans want the win, against their greatest local rivals, and will let any player who coasts through the match know about it.

Manchester City have looked supreme in most of their matches this season.

There was that ‘blip’ for a half against Crystal Palace before Haaland came alive to save them, and they had a few ropey minutes in the Champions League too.

But, by and large, the Kevin De Bruyne/Haaland axis has just been too good for most teams.

Jack Grealish came to life in City’s last English match, against Wolves, and now Pep Guardiola’s club are nailing down the gifted Phil Foden onto a long-term contract.

It is a frightening level of talent for any opposition. Manchester City really do have so many ways to destroy a team.

I’ve asked the question before, but it deserves asking again.

Is there any other club in the world who could have let Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus depart in the summer and, to my eyes anyway, improved themselves on the pitch, while definitely making a profit in the transfer market?

Raphael Varane should be given the task of trying to curtail Erling Haaland. Photo: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images© Offside via Getty Images

It’s unreal and unless we see some club – Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal – embarking on a long winning run, I can see the Premier League title race being over by February.

And I’d be saying Christmas if we had games during most of November and December.

Frankly, only a long injury to one of their stars can surely come between them and the title.

But we all know Manchester City really want the Champions League crown this season.

That is why they scooped everybody by going and getting Haaland.

After all, Manchester City could probably have won easily enough in England again by just keeping Sterling and Jesus.

Victory in the Champions League comes down to winning a couple of two-leg ties and a one-off final.

It is something that has been beyond them since they established their powerful place at the summit of English football in 2012.

It must irk them beyond hurt, that both Liverpool and Chelsea have lifted the Champions League trophy in that decade – and they have not.

I expect a real blood-and-thunder derby today.

City will go all out to get the win, United will be a bit more cautious and careful and try not to give anything stupid away early on, hoping to catch their hosts on the break as the chances night arise later in the game.

Raphael Varane will have to mark Haaland, as putting 5ft 9in Lisandro Martinez on the Norwegian would be defensive suicide.

Christian Eriksen of Manchester could be a big player for Manchester United this year in a creative role. Photo: Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images© Getty Images

Where can United hope to prosper? Well, if they are going to play him, with Cristiano of course.

He remains one of the greatest players ever to lace a boot – and is there any player you would want on your team more when a goal is needed?

Cristiano’s best days may be behind him, Erling Haaland’s best days are still ahead of him.

But do you not think Ronaldo would fancy sending his younger rivals a message with a goal or two this afternoon, that this, son, is the level to which you must aspire?

Bruno Fernandes is another key figure for me for United in this one.

If he plays well, City’s defenders have to give him their full respect.

They can’t go careering up the pitch, knowing that Fernandes will be waiting to pounce on one loose ball in space and play Ronaldo in with just a single killer pass.

If Fernandes is just moping around, as he has done in a game or two this season, then you suspect it won’t end well for United.

I’m looking forward to this as the Premier League returns.

For reasons explained above, the two teams will go at it, there will be nothing held back even though both clubs are heading into a massive five weeks of non-stop fixtures.

Speaking of which, at least the Manchester clubs have had European games in the last month.

The other club I played most for in England, Aston Villa, play Leeds later today.

The last time Leeds played a match was on September 1st, more than a month ago.

How will Jesse Marsch’s outfit manage to cope with such a massive lay-off?

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