Why Manchester United's rebirth could finally allow the Jose Mourinho-Pep Guardiola rivalry to live up to the hype
For those who imagine that the Premier League is Hollywood made flesh, this was box-office gold. The most compelling plotline imaginable for football’s great global phenomenon.
Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho – Pacino and De Niro, Luke and Darth, Smokey and the Bandit – turning up in Manchester to duke it out with water cannons, spraying hundreds of millions of pounds in a fight to identify the greatest manager on the planet.
Yet for more than two years, all those billboards seemed to have been flogging a bloody great turkey.
The reality was an opening season when both Jose and Pep bombed, followed by a second campaign which brought majesty to Manchester City and meltdown to United.
This season began in similar vein – City lording it, United a self-harming rabble with Mourinho taking on his own players.
Suddenly, though, in the past seven days, a dark force seems to have awakened.
Suddenly, Manchester United under Mourinho are looking as we’d imagined they might be.
Bloody-minded, never-say-die, last-action heroes. Ballsing it out in Fergie time, coming from behind to win twice at Bournemouth and Juventus.
Judging by his antics after the final whistle in Turin, Mourinho seems to have experienced one of those mood swings right across his emotional spectrum – from dark, brooding misery to devious smirking old rascal.
Meanwhile, Guardiola’s princes have been royally stuffing Southampton and Shakhtar Donetsk with six-goal feasts so lavish that you imagined them repairing to their dressing-room to dine on roasted swan.
City are such beautiful bullies on the flat tracks but they will need to rely more on their newfound miserly defence – with John Stones and Aymeric Laporte an outstanding young combination – when United visit this weekend.
After clean sheets at Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham, can they shut out their resurgent neighbours?
All of a sudden the prospect of Sunday’s derby has us salivating like it’s the summer of 2016 all over again.
Footballing purists might see it as beauty versus beast, Saint Pep against the old red devil incarnate.
Others will view the accusations of City’s Financial Fair Play chicanery and regard United as the authentic old-school club, up against the duplicitous PR arm of a corrupt and abusive Abu Dhabi regime.
Yet no football supporter can argue against the intrigue of a proper Pep team against a proper Jose team – and finally it seems as if we might have both of these elements in Manchester.
Of course, United delayed City’s coronation with an extraordinary comeback from 2-0 down at the Etihad in April – but the following weekend, Mourinho’s men lost at home to West Brom as the title "race" ended in meek surrender.
Mourinho led United to second place, their highest finish since Sir Alex Ferguson’s 2013 retirement, but it felt joyless.
Now, since another comeback, from 2-0 down to defeat Newcastle a month ago, Mourinho is back from the brink with a twinkle.
The personal enmity with Paul Pogba and other players won’t have vanished and any hope of a genuine title challenge remains remote, but there is a flickering of the old Mourinho pilot light and the illusion of team spirit found in victory.
He’s never been full of joie de vivre and his teams have rarely charmed the neutral, but United always knew that when they employed Mourinho.
What they thought they were getting, to counter Guardiola’s City appointment, was the anti-Pep. The master constrictor.
After City’s thumping of Shakhtar, and news from Turin that United had stormed back to defeat Juventus, Guardiola was trying to delay questions about the derby.
He did, though, sigh while answering one TV reporter and admitted of Mourinho that "of course, he has his weapons".
There was a quiet exasperation in Guardiola’s voice and you got the feeling he wasn’t particularly looking forward to taking on his greatest rival.
Although, weirdly, Mourinho’s weapons won’t be quite as obvious as usual.
United have begun to click in the enforced absence of Romelu Lukaku – the sort of target man Mourinho has generally employed – and they looked more fluid and effective without him.
They will not be able to out-football City – nobody in the Premier League can.
But they will travel across town with class, confidence, hope and doubtless a proper Mourinho gameplan.
So get a bucket of popcorn in, because this one might just be epic.
THE most eagerly-awaited fixture in world rugby – England v the All Blacks at Twickenham tomorrow – would have been a whole lot more anticipated had it taken place during Eddie Jones’ honeymoon period a couple of years ago.
But last weekend’s dogged victory over South Africa at least changed the English mood music, less than a year away from the World Cup.
It’s been four long years since this fixture was last staged, and that’s ridiculous in a world as small as elite rugby.
Chris Ashton’s four-year wait for an England start is almost as crazy – a spell in exile in Toulon contributed to that – but at least the winger’s inclusion proves that Jones isn’t entirely immune to flair.
OPTIMISTS have long since suggested that however clogged the Premier League becomes with foreign talent – and only 28 per cent of top-flight starters were English last weekend – the genuine cream will still rise to the top.
And a year after England’s magnificent Under-17 World Cup triumph, there are some reasons to be cheerful.
Wolves midfielder Morgan Gibbs-White was outstanding in a half-hour performance as a sub against Tottenham last weekend, while fellow world champions Emile Smith-Rowe of Arsenal and Phil Foden of Manchester City have found the net in the League Cup.
Yet none have matched the progress of their contemporary Jadon Sancho, who is tearing it up at the top of the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund and already capped at senior level.
And Reiss Nelson, excelling on loan from Arsenal at Hoffenheim, is likely to be the next 18-year-old in Gareth Southgate’s squad.
The door is not entirely shut in the Premier League but the prospects are far brighter for those with the boldness to head abroad.
ARSENAL defender Rob Holding is no relation to the great West Indian fast bowler Michael Holding, of course.
But such has been the quiet menace of the young Gunner’s defending since Unai Emery’s arrival that they might soon be sharing a nickname – Whispering Death anyone?
AS a third-tier club in 1986, Fulham were handed a 10-0 League Cup drubbing by Liverpool at Anfield, and anyone who has seen Slavisa Jokanovic’s side attempt to defend this season would not bet against a similar scoreline on Merseyside this Sunday.
In the Premier League, Manchester United’s 9-0 mauling of Ipswich is the record but the all-time biggest victory in the English top-flight, which also came against Ipswich, is the proud property of Fulham – 10-1 winners on Boxing Day 1963.
Most Fulham supporters would settle simply for keeping that record intact this weekend…
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