LONDON (AFP) - Louis van Gaal's increasingly confident Manchester United will look to twist the knife in Manchester City's side when the derby rivals clash in Sunday's Premier League showdown at Old Trafford.
A run of five consecutive victories has taken United above City for the first time this season and another success this weekend would blacken yet further the storm clouds gathering over the Etihad Stadium.
City's 2-1 loss at Crystal Palace on Monday left them nine points behind leaders Chelsea having played a game more, effectively ending their title defence, and they now face a battle to secure a Champions League place.
Fourth in the table, Manuel Pellegrini's team enjoy a seven-point lead over fifth-place Liverpool, but both Arsenal and United have stolen a march on them in the race for automatic Champions League qualification and defeat on Sunday would leave them vulnerable to attack from below.
"I dream of it. Every player shall dream of the victory," said United manager Van Gaal, whose side are a point above City in third place.
"I have to think with my staff and players already a lot of days how we have to beat Man City.
"You are sitting in that process to beat your next opponent and of course you want to win because it is a big step in the table also.
"When you win, the third place is then reachable and a month ago nobody was thinking about that; besides me, of course." After five losses in seven games for his side, City manager Pellegrini has found himself the subject of media speculation that his days at the Etihad are already numbered.
But although defeat at Van Gaal's hands would further weaken the Chilean's position, there is reason for optimism in City's recent derby record.
Victory would give City five straight league wins against United for the first time and they have won on their last three visits to Old Trafford, scoring 11 goals.
- Van Persie doubtful -
"I think that they have a lot of respect for us - in the last few years we dominated the derby and the Premier League," Pellegrini told his pre-game press conference.
"The derby gives the game an extra boost. I hope that not only the intensity is high, but the quality too, for the fans.
"It's an important game as we're close in the table, but I don't think the season is finished for either side after." City prevailed 3-0 at United last season and won this season's reverse fixture 1-0 in November, but they will be wary of the threat posed by Wayne Rooney, who is the leading scorer in the fixture with 11 goals.
The United captain has scored six times in his last eight club games and his stunning snapshot in last weekend's 3-1 defeat of Aston Villa took him to within one goal of Denis Law's United league tally of 171.
Along with Ander Herrera, Juan Mata, Marouane Fellaini and Ashley Young, Rooney has flourished since Van Gaal alighted upon a 4-3-3 formation for the 3-0 home win over Tottenham Hotspur on March 15.
His form has meant that Robin van Persie's six-week absence with an ankle injury has been barely noticed.
The Dutch striker returned to training this week, but Van Gaal says he is unlikely to feature on Sunday, while Luke Shaw is another injury doubt, meaning Daley Blind will probably continue at left-back.
City are expected to be without captain Vincent Kompany due to a hamstring problem, with Eliaquim Mangala in line to come into central defence alongside Martin Demichelis.
Strikers Wilfried Bony and Stevan Jovetic have already been ruled out of the game due to injury.
United's system may prompt Pellegrini to abandon his policy of fielding two central forwards, which would mean Sergio Aguero - scorer of five goals in six league games against United - leading the line alone ahead of a reinforced midfield.