Derby of imperfections sums up Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho's 'if only' seasonsDerby of imperfections sums up Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho's 'if only' seasons
Pep Guardiola had it right. “The team that fails less will go to the Champions League,” he said prior to this Manchester derby of imperfections. Misses, mistakes, mis-placed passes, misfortune – as both managers would have it - and even mis-kicks.
Manchester was supposed to be the capital of the Premier League this campaign but has turned into a quiet suburb and England’s two wealthiest clubs, with the two biggest names in world football in charge have been left fighting for scraps; the prize of fourth place and entry into the Champions League although United also hold the League Cup.
This was a Thursday night derby about avoiding Thursday night football and dropping into the booby prize of the Europa League which is unthinkable for Guardiola and a junior competition that Jose Mourinho has no desire to re-visit after this trying season.
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For now Manchester United remain in it, thankfully for them, and with a semi-final against Celta Vigo and then, hopefully, a final against either Ajax or Lyon it stands as an easier negotiation for them than the top four in the Premier League.
For Manchester City this was their last chance in a season of promise and expectation that has fizzled out without any prizes apart from a battle for the bare minimum – being in the Champions League – ahead of a summer of change, upheaval and introspection. A summer of must do better.
It meant both Guardiola and Mourinho were relatively subdued even if the pressure was such that even the ball felt it, having to be replaced inside the opening quarter of an encounter where no quarter was given and space was at a premium even if the error count rose as, also, referee Martin Atkinson decided he would allow challenges to go unpunished.
This is the time of the season when these two rivals – Guardiola and Mourinho – would normally expect to be contesting the final stages of the Champions League rather than fretting about whether they will simply gain entry into it. So it was a chastening fixture and, as Guardiola said so neatly, about being the team that failed less.
Failing less pointed to those imperfections and they were there with chances spurned – Sergio Aguero striking the post when a forward of his repute would have expected to score – and Claudio Bravo creating an opportunity for United by inexplicably patting a cross into the centre of his own goal before recovering with a save.
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United’s plan mirrored the way Mourinho had approached the technical area. He glanced at his team’s two baskets of water bottles and re-arranged them as two banks of eight, next to each other, a barrier along the painted line between him and Guardiola.
And so United sat deep and attempted to counter which is where the blistering pace of Marcus Rashford – who could afford to give Nicolas Otamendi five yards and still push ahead of the City defender – and the speed of Anthony Martial provided their attacking intent.
At the other end and City were the self-fulfilling prophecy. Guardiola, a golf fan, had likened his team to a player who hits the green every time and then putts bogey, bogey, bogey instead of a string of birdies. And so it was with Aguero – eight, nine attempts at goal - with Raheem Sterling wasteful and Guardiola turning to his bench in rising frustration and that familiar action of rubbing his hand over the crown of his head.
Mourinho has developed his own tic. A constant glance at those water bottles, picking one up, take a sip and screwing his face in annoyance as an attack broke down or turning to the fourth official – Neil Swarbrick - and pointing to his eye if a decision went against him. Or, as he did later on, suggesting Sterling took a dive.
The subdued nature of their rivalry was also evident. There was no tension as Mourinho felt with his successor at Chelsea, Antonio Conte, and there appeared if anything – despite the previous rancorous history between these two – to be that tacit acceptance that they have both under-achieved this season. The fireworks have not materialized on and off the pitch.
Even so it was Mourinho working that technical area more, even stepping onto the pitch during a break in play to speak to Pablo Zabaleta, and determining that the longer his side stayed in this the greater the chance was that they could take the points.
City dominated but could not score. It was the same story for them. The story of frustration and ‘if onlys’ as they are undoubtedly close to being very good while Mourinho will reason the same with United who he has given structure and organisation even if they remain too predictable, too conservative also and in need of surgery.
It remained the derby of imperfections; how desperately they both wanted to win this but also, equally, how important it was not to lose it. The fact that it continued to remain goalless seemed to sum up the unsatisfactory nature of their seasons. Manchester, Mourinho and Guardiola were expected to be the centre of football. Instead they became a Thursday night side-show. For one season only, they will both still hope.