Pep Guardiola is yet to watch Manchester United play this season. Normally, that would be understandable; after all, he’s the manager of Manchester City, a club that is well on its way to becoming one of the giants in Europe and certainly already is in England.
He has also had to oversee over £160m (approx. Rs 1406cr) of signings, loan or sell out unwanted stars and establish his brand of football at a club where even winning does not guarantee a job next season. Tough gig that.
But when the Spaniard said “still I didn’t see Manchester United playing” it made one wonder. Have the mind games already begun? Not in a long time has there been such anticipation for a Manchester derby. Since Guardiola was confirmed as the next City coach in January and rumours began circulating about the top job at United, which Jose Mourinho eventually got, columns have been dedicated to the off-the-pitch squabbles between the pair, rather than what it means for the football on it.
Ever since Mourinho’s Inter Milan knocked out Guardiola’s Barcelona in the 2010 Champions League semi-final, the rivalry has only grown. “It is the most beautiful defeat of my life,” Mourinho said, after a 0-1 loss at the Camp Nou that guaranteed a place in the final for Inter.
The spark had arrived, and, after a 2-0 win over Bayern Munich in the final, Inter were crowned champions of Europe at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium. But as his team bathed in champagne, Mourinho was somewhere in the stadium signing a contract with Real Madrid, making the Bernabeu his new home.
The spark became a full-fledged bonfire with Mourinho holding the reins in Madrid. The ‘El Clasico’ between Barca and Madrid, already with social and political undertones, now had Mourinho versus Guardiola to deal with. Hotly-contested, eye-poking ‘El Clasicos’ followed. Off the pitch, Mourinho won the war of words, on it, his team was demolished. The Portuguese won just two of the 11 meetings.
Now, after a mixed second spell with Chelsea for Mourinho and a hugely successful one with Bayern for his rival, they meet again.
Always in the limelight
One would think the match would be about United’s new ‘quote-cum-goal machine’ Zlatan Ibrahimovic against City’s own one-man firing squad Sergio Aguero, but the latter will likely be suspended for the game.
It could also be about Paul Pogba, now the most expensive transfer in football, and eyes will no doubt be on how the Frenchman performs. United fans will hope he is the answer to their midfield being overrun in the fixture in recent years.
But beyond all else, it will invariably come back to cut-outs of the two coaches, stats on their head-to-head records and how their teams have settled.
The season is still in its infancy, but the changes the pair has made are clear. Under Louis van Gaal last term, United averaged 55% possession but created just 312 chances in over 38 matches. In the three games so far, the time on the ball may have come down to 52% but a lot more of it has been in the opposition half, and, as a result, 36 chances have already been created. And the goals have come, mainly from Zlatan.
As for City, their situation is fairly simple. After the huge Arab investment in 2008, the club opted to sign players capable of playing the passing and pressing game of Barcelona. In the early stages, many questioned this way of functioning with the reasoning that smaller players will just not be able to cope with the physicality of the English game.
Although they were proved wrong, mainly due to the little genius that is David Silva, they still lacked the cutting edge that was required to reproduce the football in demand week in, week out. Now, they have that in Guardiola and everything seems to be falling in place. Even Raheem Sterling is beginning to show glimpses of the potential the club paid £50m (approx. Rs 439cr) for.
On September 10, it will all be put to the test. Headlines will be made of Mourinho’s quotes and a lot more made of Guardiola’s likely silence, but the football should be splendid. That is, once they let go off each others’ necks.
He may not have seen United play this season, but Guardiola, in his defence, also said he now has “10 days to see United” during the international break.
He will be a busy man. The thought of Mourinho will make sure he is.