Manchester City must beware the wounded animal when they take the cross-town trip to Old Trafford tomorrow, their midfielder Yaya Toure warned yesterday, saying that Manchester United's struggles this season would count for nothing in the white heat of derby battle.
Third-placed City are 12 points better off than United in the Premier League – their biggest advantage going into a Manchester derby since March 1978 – but a wary Toure said: "People have been describing United as being not so good at the moment, but we have to be careful because derbies are never the same and they will have a lot of desire to beat us.
"Anyone can have a bad season," added Toure, "but we all know United are a fantastic club with a great history, and have players to play at a high level. If they play like they did against Olympiakos, we must be careful."
The City manager, Manuel Pellegrini, admitted on Saturday that United's struggles had surprised him – he had expected to be "fighting against them for the title" – but he too knows that "if we want to win we're going to have a very difficult game".
If City do win, they will move within three points of leaders Chelsea, with two games still in hand on the Londoners.
This is a pivotal-looking week for City, who also visit Arsenal on Saturday – another side who will have a point to prove after their 6-0 drubbing at Chelsea. "Both games are important [and] we have to be sharp and strong," added Toure. "Arsenal, after losing to Chelsea, will be hungrier."
City climbed above Arsenal into third place, with Saturday's 5-0 rout of Fulham marking a return to their free-scoring form of the first half of the season.
It has given them a goal difference of +49 – five better than Liverpool and 10 better than Chelsea – which is something worthy of note at a club who pipped United to the 2012 title thanks to eight extra goals.
"This year will be very tight so it's important that we score a lot of goals," said Toure, who hit his first career hat-trick against a doomed-looking Fulham side.
Toure's treble took his tally for the season to 20. He is the third City player to reach that landmark this season after Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo.
A few months ago Toure was called "a liability" by the former City midfielder Dietmar Hamann, but he underlined his virtues as a matchwinner once more and, with Fernandinho also scoring and David Silva shining, it was a good afternoon for City's midfielders.
"With those kinds of midfielders who are so good technically, we can do damage to any team," said Pellegrini, who believes his side have found a better balance between attack and defence.
"It is very important to know how to defend with fewer players, [as] it is not easy. Maybe at the beginning we didn't do it so well but at the moment we are the second best defenders in the league."
Saturday brought their fourth straight clean sheet in the Premier League. How they defend in the next four matches – against United, Arsenal, Southampton and Liverpool – could decide whether the title returns to Manchester or not.