Neighbours make noise: Perspective has shifted for Manchester sides
Perspective has shifted for Manchester sides in second half of season, writes Paul Wilson
Perhaps a bigger surprise than Manchester United going into this afternoon's derby above Manchester City in the table - the last four Mancunian showdowns have all gone the way of the arrivistes, or noisy neighbours as Alex Ferguson dubbed them - is that London clubs occupy the top two positions and the best the north of England can offer is third and fourth place.
Louis van Gaal put it quite succinctly when he said after victory over Aston Villa last week that the derby would now be a fight for a higher place in the table. At that point Manuel Pellegrini would still have been hoping for a win at Crystal Palace at least to finish a respectable second to Chelsea, but Selhurst Park is rapidly becoming a booby trap for teams with top-four pretensions and Monday night changed all that. Pellegrini said City's final eight games would all be cup finals, then proceeded to lose the first one.
He keeps insisting, with that calm insouciance he does so well, that his job is not on the line whatever happens this season, yet Pellegrini is as seasoned and well-travelled a manager as his opposite number at United. He knows how football works. It is best not to give one's superiors too much to complain about, and should City come second at Old Trafford this afternoon, never mind third or fourth in the Premier League, the language of the noisy neighbours will be as blue as their shirts. Perhaps even Chelsea's shirts.
"For me the pressure is always the same," Pellegrini said. "The past is not important, it is about the present." There speaks a veteran of derbies with River Plate and Real Madrid you might think, reasonably relaxed about what may not even be the biggest derby in Britain, except Pellegrini is referring to the general pressure of management and the eternal silliness of speculation over its job security. "The pressure for the manager of a big team is always the same one, if you choose this for a career you must learn to live in the present," he explained. "This year you wanted Wenger to be sacked, after that Van Gaal, after that Liverpool and after that you sack me, and perhaps the Everton manager too. No one is safe except the team at the top of the table.
"But you often want to sack that manager also, because you go to Spain and they sack Luis Enrique, and Carlo Ancelotti. He won the Champions League! All the managers are getting the sack the moment they are not winning, you see it every year with big teams so I try not to let it bother me and continue to have a normal life. I trust I am good at my job and I think also that the club trusts me in the job. Of course you must try to win titles but the same team cannot win the title every year here because the competition in the Premier League is so strong."
Not just at the top of the Premier League either, as Crystal Palace have once again proved. Van Gaal watched that game at home, with a cup of coffee, and could hardly believe what he was seeing. "When it got to 2-0 to Crystal Palace you could not imagine it was a 2-0 game," he said. "The home side only crossed the halfway line three times and they scored two goals. City were unlucky, but that's football, and more so in England than in other countries. We have also played these sort of matches. It can be hard to take because confidence is such a big thing in football."
Van Gaal was not attempting Fergusonesque mind games by expressing sympathy for today's opponents, he was just doing that peculiarly Dutch thing of answering a question honestly and unflinchingly. He has been doing that since his arrival, though it tended to be overlooked in all the confusion over systems and philosophies. Now he has a run of victories and his feet properly under the table, his openness can be regarded as refreshing. Van Gaal, for instance, is expecting City to be less of a threat than Aston Villa. How so? "City won't play many long balls," he said. "We have had problems all season with that kind of club and playing style. We are not such a tall team so we have problems if people hit high balls at our defence.
"We are pressing better now, and with the system we play at the moment it is easier, but if you analyse the Villa game (Christian) Benteke still won all the duels. If you watch the match again you can see Benteke won everything."
Perhaps we are in mind-game territory after all. Either Van Gaal is attempting to encourage City to forget their possession game and hoof the ball in the air, or he is about to make a bid for Villa's 6ft 3in striker as soon as the transfer window opens. But Van Gaal is not the only one who can be honest about his own team's deficiencies. The image that came to Pellegrini's mind when reflecting on some of City's performances since the turn of the year was "garbage", and he too accepts that his players have not been at their best against defensive opponents who put eight or nine men behind the ball. "We are not doing everything wrong, it is important not to overreact, but we are not creating enough chances," the City manager said. "I don't remember Joe Hart having to make too many saves in the league this season, but perhaps there is not enough movement going forwards."
Both managers intend to remind their players to keep control of their emotions in what is often an intense affair - United saw Chris Smalling dismissed at City in November -though when all the hullabaloo has subsided over this third v fourth contest its place in the overall scheme of things is clear. City began the season reasonably well and have ended it poorly. United, vice versa.
City have a team that may need to be broken up and a manager who might not be around much longer, however relaxed he is about it. United have an improving team and a manager beginning to impress in the role and look positively towards the future.
City's money has not run out, but the ideas could be drying up. Pep Guardiola appears to be the only brainwave left in the locker, and he is unattainable for next season. By which time United might have reasserted their traditional superiority.
Finishing above the noisy neighbours would count as an unexpected bonus but Van Gaal is already planning for next season from a position of strength. There is no World Cup to complicate his pre-season this time, and he has succeeded in cutting the duration of a promotional tour to the United States. United have money to spend too, and to judge by Van Gaal's reaction to a question about City's freedom from financial fair play restrictions making them a more popular destination this summer, plans are already being formed. "I don't have any doubt that players are not coming to United," Van Gaal said. "You can quote me."
The result of this derby is almost incidental, apart from local bragging rights, but a perspective has shifted in the second half of the season. United appear to be growing back into themselves, no longer content to be outshouted, outspent and left in the shade. Who is the north's biggest noise? Suddenly it is up to City to prove themselves. All over again.
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