Friday 9 December 2016

James Lawton: Man City and Man United trading places with Pep arrival

Published 05/02/2016 | 02:30

Pep Guardiola carries the aura of a man who in the opinion of many hard judges created the most beautiful dynasty in the history of football (Getty Images)
Pep Guardiola carries the aura of a man who in the opinion of many hard judges created the most beautiful dynasty in the history of football (Getty Images)

It's one relatively hazard-free chore putting down brash and noisy neighbours attempting to live beyond their means. But what do you do when they park a Rolls Royce in their driveway and hire as their chauffeur the football equivalent of the most celebrated of Formula One champions?

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In the case of Manchester United, increasingly excited reports suggest, you bury your better judgement and sign up Jose Mourinho.

Until a few days ago the majority opinion at Old Trafford was that appointing the self-advertising and severely discredited Special One in place of the lame duck Louis van Gaal would smack of both desperation and the abandonment of the club's best values.

However, that was before Manchester City's acquisition of Pep Guardiola became official - and Alex Ferguson's 2009 sneering reference to United's new-rich cross-town rivals had never threatened to be more haunting.

Ferguson made his 'noisy neighbours' taunt after Michael Owen had won United an added-time victory at Old Trafford. Back then it seemed, given the scale of City's Middle Eastern investment, and ambition, a somewhat rash piece of bravado.

Now with Guardiola, the architect of Barcelona's two exquisite Champions League triumphs and the biggest influence in Lionel Messi's career, already turning his mind in the direction of City's huge budget, United have reason to fear an incessant din from the people next door.

One thing is certain as United remain five points adrift of Champions League qualification, and 10 points behind Leicester City before Sunday's visit to Stamford Bridge. It is that decades of United supremacy at home, a record total of titles, and increasing impact in Europe, are not only in danger of disappearing down the high road of football history.

The grave risk is that decline could well be set against the prospect of the once despised City travelling in the opposite direction.

Nearly 50 years ago the founder of the United tradition, Matt Busby, offered some benign encouragement to his latest City rival, the brilliant young coach Malcolm Allison.

Celebrating

At a function celebrating another United title win, Busby turned to Allison, newly appointed at second division City, and declared, "There is room for two first division teams in this city."

Allison later recalled thinking, "Yes, Matt, baby, and you're going to get two teams." He was as good as his word for a few years as City won the title, the FA Cup, the League Cup and the European Cup-winners Cup. But United did win the European Cup as City were still celebrating their domestic triumph.

There was a similar City response to Ferguson's dismissal of their ambitions. Under Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini they won two Premier League titles and the FA and League Cups.

It was not quite what Sheikh Mansour (football's richest owner with an estimated wealth of £20bn, or twice as much as Chelsea oligarch Roman Abramovich) had in mind, however, and the arrival of Guardiola surely defines the extent of his ambition.

Guardiola, above all else, carries the aura of a man who in the opinion of many hard judges, created the most beautiful dynasty in the history of football.

It is this which best defines City's appointment of Guardiola as an ultimate expression of ambition, one which they believe, and United plainly fear, will carry them into a new and, certainly domestically, exclusive dimension.

As United agonised over Mourinho, and some accused Guardiola of cherry picking clubs of established wealth and success, a formidable body of evidence was assembled on behalf of City's judgement.

The burden of it was that alone among front-line coaches, Guardiola has the ability to create a new vision of the game, and new horizons.

The core of it was supplied by the men who contributed most in his re-shaping of Barcelona after his appointment in 2008.

When he was here," said Messi, "our relationship was fantastic. Of course we won a lot of titles but that was always certain because under him we developed our game to new levels.

"Certainly there is no doubt it was the time when I grew most as a footballer. He was able to see so many possibilities in the game and he was able to convey his vision so well."

When Guardiola's Bayern fell to the Barcelona team he had done so much to develop in last season's European Cup semi-finals there was certainly an absence of gloating from the men in whom he had place so much trust.

Andres Iniesta said, "Pep Guardiola has always been one of my idols, alongside Michael Laudrup. I experienced so many great moments with him.

"Pep is a coach who leaves no detail untouched. He is always thinking about how his team can improve. He is the coach who offers so many answers and almost all of them are correct.

"He has a very clear vision of the game and, allied with his experience as a player, he has down the years improved incredibly. We all learned so much from him."

Receptive

No-one was more receptive to the ideas and the inventions of Guardiola than the ferociously committed Xavi and now he says there is no doubt in his mind about the future prospects of his old mentor.

Guardiola, he insists, will build a new empire in England. He says, "I know he can adapt to any team, any situation he finds himself in. He is a very prepared manager, perhaps the best prepared there has ever been.

"He is so very meticulous, a perfectionist. No detail is too small. He has such a clear mind on football. I know he would succeed anywhere in the world."

Such endorsements can only add to the pressure on United's embattled chief executive Ed Woodward. Like Abramovich at Chelsea and the former Barcelona executive and Ferran Soriano, now in charge at City, Woodward besieged Guardiola the moment he hinted that he was ready to leave Munich with the Premier League in mind.

No football man had surely ever felt such a hot rush of collective desire and when he said yes to his old Nou Camp friend, the United chief executive found himself faced not only with a drastic alternative but also a supreme irony.

Would it not mean that with the appointment of Mourinho, United would become the noisiest neighbours?

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