Pep vs Jose? Just embrace City vs United

Date published: Saturday 20th August 2016 2:27

Manchester is purple.

On Friday, it was covered in a particular red hue, as United had their swagger back. They boasted the most expensive player in the world, the cult of Zlatan, the magnificence of Mourinho, and a renewed pride befitting one of the biggest clubs in the world.

By midday on Saturday, a splash of blue was added. City may have been playing around 50 miles away in a blustery Stoke, but it is clear to see that Manchester’s second giant has been reawakened. There is no Paul Pogba, no Zlatan Ibrahimovic and no Jose Mourinho, but Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and Pep Guardiola provide a different kind of pulling power, an alternative attraction. Both clubs are reaping the rewards from necessary change.

Last season, for the first time since 1991, none of the top three places in England’s top flight were filled by a Manchester club. From 2006 to 2014, the Premier League trophy resided in either the red corner or the blue corner of the city for seven years out of eight, mainly out of the clutches of London’s giants. But last season was different. City scraped into fourth with an uninspiring Manuel Pellegrini departing the ship, while Louis van Gaal steered an insipid United to fifth. Manchester has previously played host to European champions and English champions; last season, it represented failure and regression.

Despite a Capital One Cup trophy and a semi-final berth in the Champions League, it was City who endured the most disappointing season. The writing had been on the wall for Van Gaal and his charges at Old Trafford, but at the Etihad, there burned flames of hope. Five wins and five clean sheets beckoned the start to their Premier League season, and European progress had been secured by the turn of the year. Eight victories in their last 19 league games and barely a whimper as they exited the Champions League saw those hopes extinguished.

Out went Pellegrini, in came Guardiola. Finally, we have an answer to that age-old adage, or at least a variation thereof: He can do it on a windy Saturday afternoon in Stoke. The Spaniard would have preferred a more comfortable afternoon, but he will know, behind his frustration, that this is a work in progress. And that particular work looked irresistible at times against a side Pellegrini and Roberto Mancini had managed to beat just once away in eight Premier League meetings.

After their European excursions midweek, an early Saturday kick-off against Stoke was likely to be low on City’s list of preferences, but they acclimatised wonderfully. Stoke troubled them, and a 4-1 scoreline does the Potters a disservice, but they were overwhelmed by their opponents at times. The forward line was imperious once more, as Aguero, Sterling and De Bruyne capitalised on their superiority. Guardiola will have been pleased to see Nolito and Kelechi Iheanacho have such an impact from the bench, too. Eleven goals in three games? Sure, why not?

In defence, some may question the decision to hand John Stones the man-of-the-match award, but the summer signing impressed once more. With Fernandinho alongside him, the 22-year-old grows more confident with each passing game.

Maybe the sight of their bitter rivals enjoying a renaissance has inspired them somewhat. An air of superiority pervaded Old Trafford the evening before. United were back, and they had raised the bar. Less than 24 hours later, City rose to the challenge. Chelsea, Liverpool, Leicester, Arsenal and Tottenham may well disagree, but the early signs suggest that the Premier League trophy could be Manchester-bound come May.

Ibrahimovic displayed his brilliance with two goals; Aguero did the same. Paul Pogba dominated a Southampton midfield; David Silva did similar to Stoke – albeit through rather more subtle methods. Mourinho masterminded a victory over a club who finished sixth last season, and who United had struggled against in recent times; Guardiola engineered a win over a side who finished ninth, and who have been City’s biggest stumbling block over the last eight years.

It is a shame that, for many, this inter-city rivalry has been reduced to ‘Pep vs Jose: The sequel’. The two endured a difficult relationship during their respective times in Spain, and the renewal of their rivalry made the headlines. In their first press conferences, both were asked their opinions on the other, whether they would shake hands and share a customary bottle of wine after their meetings. But a more intense conflict, a more heated battle, a more fierce struggle has had a fire lit under it. This is not Guardiola versus Mourinho; this is Manchester City versus Manchester United. And it feels ever so right. Embrace it.


Matt Stead

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