Sergio Aguero is just three goals away from becoming the top scorer in Manchester derby history – but the striker may not even get one more chance to break the record.
With his Manchester City contract running out at the end of the season and no decision yet over a new deal, Sunday’s Premier League clash with their city rivals at the Etihad Stadium could well be the Argentine’s last opportunity to surpass Wayne Rooney’s tally of 11.
However, after a campaign devastated by injury and illness, he is unlikely to start, and may not even feature at all.
Even though Pep Guardiola has been changing up to seven players on a game-by-game basis in recent weeks, and Aguero sat out the midweek win over Wolves, there is no guarantee that the No.10 will be recalled.
Indeed, the importance of the game – victory would propel City 17 points clear of United, effectively sealing the title – means that Aguero is expected to be on the bench again.
It’s a frustrating time for the most prolific player in the club’s history, as he tries to battle his way back to full fitness without the benefit of regular football.
Aguero has sporadically suffered from muscle injuries throughout his decade at the Etihad and has always needed minutes on the pitch to regain his sharpness.
However, after more than a year blighted by lengthy spells on the sidelines, he has seen Guardiola’s side cope, and then move on, without him.
It is now over a year since he either scored in the Premier League (January 21, 2020) or completed 90 minutes (February 19, 2020), with Aguero experiencing a rotten run of misfortune at a critical point in his career.
Following football’s three-month hiatus after the Covid-19 outbreak, Aguero suffered a serious knee injury in the second game of ‘Project Restart’.
A return in October after surgery was cut short by a hamstring injury and he later had to quarantine after close contact with someone who tested positive for Covid-19 before getting the virus himself.
City, meanwhile, just got better and better in the interim.
Having also been shorn of the services of Aguero’s fellow striker Gabriel Jesus for significant chunks of the season, Guardiola transformed his side by playing without an orthodox centre-forward, resulting in a seemingly unstoppable march towards a third Premier League title in four years, while at the same time remaining in contention to win both domestic cup competitions, as well as the Champions League.
And their most successful and dynamic football has come with attacking midfielders Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden and Ilkay Gundogan taking turns playing as a ‘false nine’.
They have even shared the role during games, while it is worth noting that even Jesus has varied his game so that he can play a part in this fluid forward line.
All of this has left Aguero looking like the odd man out since returning to full training. Indeed, he has played just 94 minutes during the current 21-game winning streak.
His only start, meanwhile, came against West Ham last weekend, when City struggled to a 2-1 victory and Aguero cut a frustrated figure for the hour he was on the pitch.
He even gave the ball away for the goal that led to Michail Antonio’s equaliser and didn’t register a single shot of any variety.
It was also revealing that in the midweek win over Wolves, when the game was tied at one goal apiece with 10 minutes remaining, Aguero never left the bench to warm up. Instead, Gundogan came on and City scored three times.
Guardiola insists that Aguero still has a big part to play in City’s campaign with his side chasing an unprecedented quadruple, but the Catalan coach is still set to continue with a system that has proved spectacularly successful.
“I always think we need him in this part of the season in the right moments because he has a special talent and quality,” Guardiola said. “He’s going to help.
“At the end, there will be games that will be tight and difficult, and we will need Kun. We need guys who can score a goal and the best guy in those terms is him. But he came back after one year out injured and needs time, as any player would.”
But it’s not just the immediate future which is uncertain, Aguero does not yet know where he will be playing this football next season.
His status as a club legend means that he will be given every opportunity to get a new deal and Aguero is understood to be open to staying at the Etihad.
However, if he were to become available, there would be no shortage of quality suitors, with Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and former club Independiente all presently being touted as possible destinations.
City, meanwhile, could be in the market for forwards this summer, with Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Haaland among those being linked.
Aguero has long since established himself as one of the truly great strikers of the Premier League era, sitting fourth on the all-time goalscorers list, and he still believes he has more to offer.
A winner against United on Sunday would certainly be a welcome reminder of how he played such a significant role in transferring success from the red half of Manchester to the blue half over the past decade.
Of course, a hat-trick would be even better, as it would cement his place in derby history. At this stage, though, and after the season he’s had, he’d probably just settle for some game time.