Monday 22 January 2018

Early days but this is no phoney war

Paul Scholes suggests this could be a title decider - he might not be too wide of the mark

Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho — 'Two new managers pretending to be unconcerned about their previous rivalry in Spain'. Photo: Getty Images
Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho — 'Two new managers pretending to be unconcerned about their previous rivalry in Spain'. Photo: Getty Images

Paul Wilson

Most people will be relieved when the first international break of the fledgling season is out of the way and business proper resumes on Saturday with an eagerly anticipated Manchester derby.

All derbies are eagerly anticipated, of course, that is the whole point of the exercise. But Manchester is where it is all happening in English football at the moment. In terms of the personalities and pedigree of the two managers, the staggering amounts of money spent in the transfer window and the impeccable starts United and City have made to the new season, it is clear things have moved up several notches since the memorable Old Trafford meeting five years ago and a result the BBC suggested would send shock waves through the Premier League.

That was City's 6-1 win against Alex Ferguson's reigning champions, United's worst home defeat for more than half a century, and recollections are still vivid of a flabbergasted Fergie blaming his players for chasing the game and conceding more goals rather than switching into damage limitation mode once Jonny Evans had been sent off.

Less well remembered might be the scorer of the first two goals in that game, Mario Balotelli, last seen departing Liverpool on a free transfer to Nice accompanied by a mocking tweet from Jamie Carragher to the effect that the French club had paid over the odds.

Sergio Aguero and David Silva were also on the scoresheet in 2011 and they would both be lining up for the first Manchester derby on Pep Guardiola's watch were it not for the suspension that has ruled Aguero out of the game. Kelechi Iheanacho will be a capable deputy, unless Guardiola opts to send Nolito further forward and make changes in midfield, though Aguero's absence subtly alters the dynamic.

With him in the side City would probably have the attacking edge over their rivals. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney are both in their 30s and still a work in progress as a striking partnership, while Aguero is unquestionably the finished article and has already established that he is in excellent form.

With the ever-impressive Silva and Kevin De Bruyne just behind, and a rejuvenated Raheem Sterling providing pace and penetration on the wing, City must have felt before the elbowing incident against West Ham that they could match for quickness and invention what is still quite a ponderous United attack. Ibrahimovic makes a fine figurehead and is likely to score plenty of goals, though with Juan Mata keeping Henrikh Mkhitaryan out of the side the only real pace in the United front line is provided by Anthony Martial, unless Jose Mourinho finds some way to make room for Marcus Rashford.

City have pace on both flanks, a great deal of imagination in the middle, and when available the most lethal finisher in the division in Aguero. To balance that, United are possibly better placed in defence, where Eric Bailly has fitted in straight away and Daley Blind is playing well enough to keep Chris Smalling out. Mourinho has a worry over Antonio Valencia's availability, with the right-back due to return from international duty on Friday, but one of the positives from Louis van Gaal's time at the club was a tightening up at the back and United had the joint meanest defence in the Premier League last season, in no small part due to David de Gea.

Guardiola has chosen to change City's goalkeeper this season and bringing in a new player in that position to replace a long-standing incumbent is always a risk, as United have discovered over and over again in the last couple of decades. The back line ahead of Claudio Bravo is not exactly stable either. John Stones looks the part already, though he showed inexperience on occasion at Everton last season, but until Vincent Kompany recovers full fitness the identity of his regular partner remains unclear. While this derby might come too soon for Kompany, the Belgian captain will probably be back as soon as his fitness allows. The only question then, a familiar one, is how long his fitness will last.

That the derby will be competitive and both teams well-matched and well-managed is a given. Manchester is lucky in that respect this season. The only previous time the two sides each won their three opening matches was in 2011-12, and that was the season City finally prised the title away from their neighbours on goal difference on the final day of the season, with Aguero scoring the now legendary late goal against QPR. As the aforementioned 6-1 shock wave sender of that season was in October, this is the first time the two sides will go into the Manchester derby with 100 per cent records and two new managers pretending to be unconcerned about their previous rivalry in Spain. The stage could hardly be better set or the game more delicately poised.

Mourinho has done well to restore United to their former grandeur very quickly, largely with statement signings such as Paul Pogba and Ibrahimovic, though some might argue Van Gaal set the bar very low and appeared to have mere ordinariness as the vision at the end of his famous three-year plan. Guardiola has not been slow to show decisiveness and exert authority, banishing Joe Hart to Italy and leaving Yaya Toure out of his Champions League squad. With new signings Ilkay Gundogan and Leroy Sane still to get started, the City supporters are already excited about the brand of football their side has been playing and relieved to discover that the £44m spent on Sterling last season might not have been a waste of money after all.

The new manager of Hebei China Fortune, Manuel Pellegrini, is probably permitting himself a wry smile at the possibility that the player he brought to City and saw struggle is now flourishing under his successor. But if Pellegrini failed to get the best out of Sterling he cannot argue with City turning to a manager who can.

If a lot has changed in the five years since Balotelli's brace in 2011, even more has changed in the four months since City could manage only a fourth place finish and United ended up in the Europa League. Paul Scholes has said this derby could turn out to be a title decider and, daft as that sounds in September, it might not be so wide of the mark.

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