Can Saturday’s Manchester derby truly be a Premier League title decider when everything is all but decided? A low-key build-up to the game from both Manchester United and Manchester City’s managers would suggest Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola would rather it wasn’t happening at all.
The Mancunian candidates have been playing down Saturday evening’s showdown, even while certain United fans are describing the prospect of City making the trophy mathematically secure and celebrating the title as they look on as “Armageddon”.
“Manchester City is not important for me,” harrumphed Mourinho last week. “What is important for me is, since the moment we left first position and went to second, we stayed there for the whole of the season.”
That suggested he decided United could not win the league as far back as his team drawing 2-2 at Stoke on September 9, perhaps not the level of ambition his paymasters might expect for a multi-million pound contract and some £300m that was lavished on players. All that now remains is the opportunity to be a further nuisance to the contemporary with whom he shares the most intense rivalry of their careers.
Mourinho doubtless has a few tricks up his sleeve in the Machiavellian manner of his Chelsea team ransacking Liverpool’s 2013-14 title challenge, but Saturday is far more about what City want from the occasion.
Losing 3-0 at Liverpool meant there became the heavy possibility that the joys of celebrating the title at the Etihad might be soon dampened by exiting the Champions League on Tuesday.
There is talk of City running out at with the likes of Phil Foden, Tosin Adarabioyo and Oleksandr Zinchenko in the starting line-up in an attempt to preserve energy and spirits ahead of Liverpool’s visit, there being a European miracle to plan for.
City winning is not imperative, as the three points they require will be ticked off soon enough. Will Guardiola protect his stars or instead gamble on harnessing the momentum that winning the title in their rivals’ back yard might give them to take that into Tuesday?
Anfield gulped the wind out of the City project’s sails. Quadruple and treble talk from the winter months is now reduced to a single trophy that was just about wrapped up before Christmas. Even allowing for a prize that will have been collected with an excellence beyond all but the finest in Premier League history, there is some danger of City’s season ending with something of an anticlimax.
The Champions League has continued to be a competition that tortures the club, even with the dream ticket of Guardiola at the helm. And surrendering to Liverpool’s firestorm in such meek fashion was a deflation of the mystique of the Catalan genius.
Following years of seduction, Guardiola was tempted to the Etihad Campus to transform Abu Dhabi’s club into Champions League winners and yet the competition with which he made his reputation has now become a cruel mistress.
For Anfield and Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, read the Stade Louis II last season, where Monaco blew City out of the competition in the last 16 with a devotion to speedy attacking and pressing that slashed through Guardiola’s over-finessed plans. Both shared similarities with Bayern Munich’s trio of semi-final exits during his spell in Bavaria. When losing to Real Madrid in 2014, Barcelona in 2015 and Atletico Madrid in 2016, ties ran away from his control as Bayern melted down.
A coach with the deserved reputation of being the world’s best, who revolutionised the game almost as soon as he moved into the frontline a decade ago, is still marooned on a mere two Champions League titles, the latest coming as far back as 2011 with Barcelona. Without a Tuesday turnaround, he ends the season still level with the pair of European Cups Mourinho collected at Porto and Inter Milan, the second only a year earlier than Guardiola’s last. It is supposed to be Mourinho who is yesterday’s man.
Meanwhile, to salve such wounds, a statement victory is required as something to mark a season in which City were several galaxies ahead of the Premier League. And against who better than United?
Claiming the title against United would probably register as the club’s most famous derby victory – winning 6-1 at Old Trafford in 2011 notwithstanding – since Denis Law back-heeled his former club down to the Second Division in 1974.
Does Guardiola crave such a moment? Or have Liverpool spooked him?