A ball hasn’t even been kicked yet, but one feels the Manchester derby has got its mojo back. For too long now this fixture has been played on an uneven playing field, or in circumstances unbefitting of two sides that should, with their vast resources and exceptional players, have been brawling for the Premier League title. Not since the days of Sir Alex Ferguson and Roberto Mancini have Manchester City and Manchester United engaged in a battle that has had meaningful repercussions on the title; Manuel Pellegrini was twice victorious in the derby in his debut season but these wins felt more like a routine six points against a mid-table side rather than a genuine title challenger. Under David Moyes, neither United’s players nor their fans ever seemed to feel confident ahead of facing their city rivals.
In the three years following the departures of Ferguson and Mancini – two impassioned individuals that bickered like UFC challengers in the build up to a multi-million buck showdown – the Manchester derby became a normal occasion again. In the stands the fans had lost their bravado and the chants lacked ferocity. You knew what you were going to get and the occasion had lost its ability to surprise – the same old one dimensional, tiresome attacking football from Pellegrini and the even more humdrum possession football of Louis Van Gaal. Everything had sort of softened.
Even United’s 4-2 win over City in April 2015 felt unmemorable. City recovered from the defeat rather easily to finish second in the division when, upon leaving Old Trafford that day, Champions League football looked to be in doubt. In reality it never was. United were far too inconsistent to build on the win under a manager that never really looked as if he had a clue in England. Finishing at the top of the table in that 2014/2015 season were José Mourinho’s Chelsea. Placed in charge of United that April when Van Gaal’s side, seemingly buzzing with momentum, trailed Chelsea by 8 points, you wouldn’t have bet against the Portuguese manager leading them to silverware.
With Mourinho now finally in charge at Old Trafford, United have done what they should have done as soon as Ferguson announced he would be retiring three years ago. As much of a controversial character Mourinho is, he’s a terrific manager and one that demands 100 per cent commitment to the cause. United underwent an ugly ‘transitional’ period following Ferguson’s departure in which there was more regression than transition, and hiring Mourinho in 2013 would have certainly eased the mourning process. This summer transfer window at Old Trafford has been all about removing the anxiety that consumed the club last season; Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Eric Bailly, Henrikh Mhiktaryan and manager Mourinho are the confident, aggressive and arrogant figures the club needs to restore its winning mentality.
Under Mourinho United will challenge. That’s certain. But in his way will be an old nemesis by the name of Pep Guardiola, a former accomplice turned enemy. There was similar reparative therapy to be done at the Etihad Stadium this summer, but unlike their rivals, City were perhaps too confident, too complacent. City’s arrivals are of a more humble nature; promising youngsters, like Leroy Sané, desperate to learn their trade under the Spaniard and industrious team-players such as İlkay Gündoğan and Nolito have been chosen. Not one of City’s summer imports can be said to be outspoken. Guardiola is not one for controversy.
It’s something he couldn’t avoid in Spain, though. At Barcelona when Guardiola was a player and Mourinho was acting as the late Bobby Robson’s translator, the pair were ‘close’ by Mourinho’s own admission. Things changed in 2008 when Guardiola, working with Barcelona’s B team, was selected ahead of the more experienced Mourinho to take control of the first team. It was the job José had been craving and from then on, the relationship soured. Like a young child who had been told by his father that he would one day grow to be bigger and stronger than the older brother who bullied him, Guardiola had grown to put Mourinho in the shadows.
You could see the fury bursting from the Portuguese’s eyes during his spell at Real Madrid when he was, time and time again, humiliated by Guardiola’s Barcelona team. Madrid’s 5-0 loss to Barcelona at the Nou Camp in November 2010 may go down as José’s worst ever defeat – the video of him clawing Tito Vilanova in the eye a year later as his side again fell victim to a Barca masterclass in a 3-2 Spanish Super Cup loss confirmed the resentment had never gone away. In the boardroom Mourinho, according to Guardiola, was ‘the f****** boss’, but on the pitch, where it mattered, there was only one winner in Spain.
The bad blood between the two managers serves as the dramatic backdrop to Saturday’s derby. The two fogies that led the teams into battle last season have been ousted and in come possibly the two best coaches in world football. Even better, they seem to genuinely dislike other. That in itself makes this derby more appealing than it’s ever been in the last three seasons.
But on the pitch, of course, is where this game will be won. Both clubs have invested heavily this summer ensuring there will be world class personnel on the pitch as well as in the dugouts. Between them the Manchester giants have spent over £300m. They said that ‘money can’t buy you Stones’, but £47.5m ended up proving Everton fans wrong; meanwhile, United were busy concluding the biggest transfer in history, bringing Pogba back to the club for a world record £89m. It’s an obscene amount of money, but both players have so far demonstrated that it’s money well spent.
The Manchester derby is now a tie in which world class players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sergio Agüero (when available), Kevin De Bruyne and Pogba will be strutting their stuff. This bodes well for a game that last term saw an ageing Yaya Touré and Marouane Fellaini awkwardly stumble around in the centre of the pitch. Agüero will miss this game through suspension but himself and United’s new Swede are likely to find themselves tussling for the Golden Boot next May.
There are points to be proven. Ibrahimovic has not hidden his contempt for City’s boss, branding him a ‘spineless’ coward in his biography ‘I Am Zlatan’. The 34-year-old claims he was isolated by Pep during his time in Barcelona when he was shifted to the left-wing to make way for Lionel Messi. An obvious decision in the eyes of most, especially now that Messi has scored over 300 since assuming the forward role. But for Zlatan, a man so confident in his own ability, it was an act not to be forgiven. He’ll want revenge on Saturday afternoon.
Kelechi Iheanacho, one of the league’s brightest talents, could be the man to fill the Agüero void and fill the sole striker’s position in Pep’s team, but if he is not selected, Guardiola can call upon perhaps Germany’s most intriguing prospect Leroy Sané, Spain international Nolito or even the immensely gifted Raheem Sterling rather than second rate players like Wilfried Bony and Jesus Navas. In the red corner, ready to make an impact as a starter or from the bench, is Marcus Rashford – another tremendously exciting youngster whose goal decided proved to be crucial in the last meeting between the sides. This year Rashford will have John Stones to run at, a far more daunting prospect than Martin Demichelis who should never have found himself near the first team last season, let alone a derby. At just 22-years-old, Stones is already being described by Champions League and World Cup winner Gerard Pique as ‘the best central defender that England have’.
Set to be accepting low, drilled and accurate passes from Stones in the heart of the field is Fernandinho – a player most are beginning to accept is up there with the league’s finest midfielders. This year he will tussle with a potential future Ballon d’Or winner, the most expensive player in world football. And if Guardiola decides to hand him his debut, İlkay Gündoğan will partner the Brazilian in a pivot that will have City fans salivating. Even before a ball has been kicked, the prospective mini-battles we may see this weekend raise the heart-rate.
The fact that both side’s perfect starts to the season have been praised so generously just shows how mishandled they have been prior to Guardiola and Mourinho. Wins against Sunderland, West Ham, Hull and Bournemouth are expected from teams brimming with the talent City and United have – two teams who finally look set to reach their maximum potential. The outcome of this match may prove to be unimportant, but no one can deny that the Manchester derby, with its managers and its players, is now an unmissable heavyweight clash once again.