|Once upon a time, Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho once read from the same script|
In the premier league season that has been dubbed a battle of the galactico
managers, its ultimate battle is scheduled for Saturday at Old Trafford in the 171st Manchester derby. Whether it is by coincidence, fate or design, the managers in the respective dugouts at Old Trafford are at the epitome of a rivalry that has dominated European football for at least the last decade.
Incredibly, they both started out as the best of mates way back. Under the management of the late Sir Bobby Robson, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola enjoyed a friendship that translated into tactical clarity and flexibility at FC Barcelona. The pair are famed for reducing Sir Bobby's written tactics into a very understandable formula for the players.
Indeed, so close was the relationship between the pair that when Jose Mourinho was interviewed for the FC Barcelona job in 2008, he pledged to a Barcelona board that included current City executive Txiki Begiristain that he would promote a young Pep Guardiola from Barcelona B to work with him as his assistant.
To the surprise of both men, the Barcelona board picked the 'understudy' Guardiola citing the abrasive and at times poisonous effect that Mourinho seems to harbor about him. The Spaniard's tactical wonders saw his side claim Champions League from Manchester United and effectively justify the punt that the club had made in making their managerial choice. And henceforth a cold war was born between the pair, underlined by a difference in their tactical modus operandi.
The idealist in Pep played to the hearts of purists who dubbed his style the ultimate form of the beautiful game started by Barcelona and Dutch legend Johan Cruyff. The pragmatist in Jose played to the minds of realists who appreciated the bottom line in the football industry; results!
The stage was therefore set at the Camp Nou in 2010 when Jose Mourinho brought his Inter Milan side to defend a 3-1 first leg semi-final victory for a place in the Champions League Final. The clash of styles was bared for all to see. Gerald Pique scored in a 1-0 win for the home side but Mouirnho, always chasing the result mentally, won the war as his side hung on to win on aggregate 2-3. In his Old Trafford office, as was in his Real Madrid office, a life-size image of his celebration of that triumph at the Camp Nou hangs by the wall.
That in itself is testament to how rare the victories against Pep were for him during his time at Real Madrid. At the end of their two seasons of battle in Spain, the El Classico
record was firmly in Guardiola's corner reading W5 L2 D4. Indeed, the banter lines ahead of Saturday will read that Jose Mouirnho has been sacked more times than he has beaten Pep. Except that there is another dimension to the battle on Saturday lunchtime----Zlatan Ibrahimovic!
The Swede was apart of FC Barcelona's initial side under Pep Guardiola. Despite his popularity, he was, for Lionel Messi at least, a major obstacle to obtaining the number of goals his and status in the team he desired. Messi had the ear of Guardiola and the Argentine's talent merited a squad built around him. Pep gave in and it rubbed off Zlatan the wrong way. He thought his manager was weak for it and he was soon shown the door.
At Inter, Zlatan found a soul-mate. Jose Mourinho was everything Pep was not for him. The pair enjoyed success in Italy before parting ways amid mutual respect. Coincidence? Fate? or design? It's amazing how events have unfolded to the extent that on Saturday, Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be out on the pitch trying to make a point or two to Pep for what happened at Barcelona all those years ago.
The premier league has three 100% records left this season. By the end of proceedings on Saturday, that number would have been reduced to a maximum of just two. In a league season that is increasingly looking like it will be decided on fine margins, you feel that the two managers would just settle for the point on Saturday before kickoff.
That the fixture comes so soon after the International break means that none of the teams will be as strong as they would have hopped for the game. Injuries and late arrivals will count for interesting team news other than what we already know.
In many ways, you could argue that the result will not really mean much in the context of a potential premier league title race between now and May. It's still just three points on offer and with 34 games left after Saturday, there is plenty of time for the winner/loser to make up ground even before Christmas. But football is a confidence sport as much as anything and you feel that the victor will get a timely shot in the arm. Keeping a 100% record after seeing off your most difficult opponent makes it ominous for the rest.
That takes nothing away from the reality that is the premier league though. These two managers will know by now that the game will bear much less consequences as the equivalent did in Spain. This season is more than just about the pair. The victor on Saturday will not be guaranteed the three points on the next MatchDay in a way it was in the La Liga. Short term, the biggest take-away from this will be bragging rights. Derby pride. In order to reap the long term rewards, the work must be put in every week!
Not that the neutral will want the details. For him, this is box office television come early on Saturday. It's fair to say that the league cannot possibly come up with a more mouthwatering fixture!