All those complaining that Thursday’s Manchester derby was not a patch on the previous week’s el clásicocompletely miss the point. In terms of quality the Manchester derby is currently no better than the Merseyside version and it is rapidly becoming as irrelevant. If the Premier League does have a derby to stand comparison with the best Spain can offer, at the moment it would have to be the London rivalry between Chelsea and Spurs, whose FA Cup semi-final was both an entertaining game and, as Antonio Conte said, a great advert for English football.
That standards are being set in London rather than Manchester was painfully evident at the Etihad, where City and United in effect found themselves fighting over the crumbs left from the top table. Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho had to put a brave face on even being associated with such an unedifying shambles and the latter did not do himself or his club any favours with the ridiculous suggestion that Marouane Fellaini might have been harshly treated because he did not break Sergio Agüero’s nose or hurt him badly enough to prevent him smiling in the tunnel.
At least Guardiola, peering through the gloom of an underwhelming end to City’s season, could find something worth smiling about. He had hoped to have Gabriel Jesus back for the key games at the end of the campaign – the FA Cup final, maybe. Bringing him on for the last few minutes against United was an acknowledgment that there are not really going to be any key games now, at least none worth saving him for, and when the Brazilian immediately found the net with a header from a slightly offside position there was even the suggestion Guardiola should have sent him on earlier. But the striker’s recovery from a metatarsal fracture represents a positive for City, not just for next season but for what remains of this one.
“He has an instinct in the box,” Guardiola said, all too aware that apart from Agüero few other City players display the same trait. “When he played his first game against Tottenham [in January] he made an impact in eight minutes. Against United, after three months out, he finds two chances in five minutes, one goal disallowed by centimetres.
“He is dynamic and aggressive in the penalty area, his influence on his other team-mates is huge, and we are so happy to have him back. He could not play any more minutes on his return than he did because he only had two full training sessions in three months, but he is physically strong and I am pretty sure he is going to help us until the end of the season.”
That does not necessarily mean the 20-year-old will find himself in the starting lineup at Middlesbrough on Sunday. Guardiola still believes he should be brought back gradually, and he does not want to take unnecessary risks against a side fighting for Premier League survival.
“We’ve just had two tough games in a week, including extra time against Arsenal, and the players are tired,” Guardiola said. “The players showed their mental strength against United and they only have two and a half days to recover. We will have to assess the whole squad before making any selection decisions. We cannot risk not qualifying for the Champions League.”
There, if you like, is a useful synopsis of City’s season. All the dreams and ambition in the world at the start, by the end reduced to worrying about picking up enough points from Middlesbrough, West Brom and Watford. It is a familiar enough routine at the club, and one that importing a top-drawer manager does not seem to have greatly altered, though Vincent Kompany, a captain now also happily recovered from injury, believes he can see encouraging signs.
“We have not been getting the results we deserve after dominating so many games this season, but if you ask me we are not far off having the real deal here,” he said. “I’m hoping we are going to achieve Champions League qualification – looking at the fixtures there is an argument that United’s schedule is a little tougher than ours – and the best thing about football is that in just a few months’ time there will be four competitions to play for again.
“That’s the way I look at it, I don’t want to be depressed about where we stand at the moment. We don’t have any margin for mistakes but I remain convinced our performances have been good and we are not far from being competitive on all fronts. We didn’t get a result against United, fair enough. But watch the game closely and you can see there is something brewing.”
City have three home games left of their five to play, do not face any top-six opponents and should manage a top-four place as long as Agüero and Jesus remain available.
United’s point at the Etihad was significant in that it places top-four qualification in their own hands – if they win all their remaining games there will be nothing Liverpool can do to overhaul them – though as they still have to travel to Arsenal and Spurs it is by no means certain that Mourinho’s draw specialists will win all their remaining games.
Fellaini’s absence through suspension leaves Mourinho short in midfield, though, given he will still be available in Europe, not as short as all that. If Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera can make it through against Swansea on Sunday, Paul Pogba and Fellaini could take over at Celta Vigo and give the others a rest. “We are in trouble but we can fight,” Mourinho said, perhaps unwisely in view of Fellaini’s conduct in the derby.
The issue for both Manchester teams in what has been a disappointing season for the north-west as a whole, is the amount of fight left in Liverpool. With four winnable games between now and the end of the season, they ought to be looking at maximum points to make sure United have to do their utmost to sneak past them. Yet Liverpool appear to be running out of steam at the wrong time and after losing ground at home to Crystal Palace last week nothing can be taken for granted.
The only certainty, whoever makes it into the final top four, is that the London clubs will remain firmly on top. The northern powerhouse, in football as in geopolitics, is still a concept waiting to gain traction.