Their rivalry became so toxic in Spain that even now, after almost a year since their respective arrivals at Manchester United and Manchester City, it still takes a degree of adjustment to listen to Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola adopting such a respectful tone towards each other.
The fireworks that many envisaged have not materialised and not even the pressure around the derby at the Etihad Stadium on Thursday, when defeat for either club could deal a potentially irreparable blow to their top-four hopes, was going to change that on Wednesday as modern football’s two most successful managers continued to keep it cordial.
With 45 trophies between them, neither bit off more than they could chew last summer when they took on the challenge of trying to reignite United and City. But, while there is an argument to suggest the feuding at Real Madrid and Barcelona took so much out of them that there has been little appetite for a bloody rematch, the greater reality is that there is a marked difference between going toe-to-toe for the biggest titles and scrambling for Champions League qualification.
Mourinho has had his plate so full at United, not least with an onerous fixture schedule and mounting injury list that has now extended to robbing him of midfielder Paul Pogba on Thursday night, and Guardiola similarly as he struggles to adapt to English football, that there has not been much time or point indulging in the sort of verbal warfare that characterised their reigns in Spain.
“That is not a question for me,” Mourinho shot back on Wednesday when asked what he thought about City’s season, an open invitation to stick the boot in declined.
If anybody has given Mourinho or Guardiola a bloody nose this season, it has been Antonio Conte. The Italian polished the squad Mourinho left behind after his sacking at Chelsea and turned them into champions elect and, in the process, showed Guardiola how to make a splash in your first season in England. Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham look well placed to finish second and even London’s poor relation at the moment, Arsenal, managed to ensure Guardiola will finish a season trophy-less for the first time in his managerial career by beating City in Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final.
Poking the beast is always a perilous exercise, though, and the one certainty in Manchester is that both United and City will react this summer by writing the sort of cheques the rest may struggle to countenance. Do not be surprised if the gross spend of both clubs totals around £400 million.
Mourinho wants four players, including Tottenham’s Eric Dier, Burnley defender Michael Keane and Atlético Madrid and France forward Antoine Griezmann. City could sign as many as seven players and offload a dozen, with the likes of Leonardo Bonucci, the Juventus centre-half, and Arsenal forward Alexis Sánchez in Guardiola’s sights.
Until then, claiming a Champions League spot, preferably at the expense of the other, is the sole aim. Listening to Mourinho talk on Wednesday about the taxing nature of the Europa League, the Portuguese would probably love nothing more than to bump Guardiola’s lot into that competition next season. But to do that, United will probably need to win on Thursday night.
With Pogba joining Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Juan Mata, Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling on the treatment table after succumbing to muscle fatigue at the end of Sunday’s 2-0 win at Burnley, that will not be easy.
But Mourinho does not expect Guardiola to take his team lightly and believes the acute challenges facing his tiring squad are having a galvanising effect.
“I think maybe opponents they look at us with different eyes because we don’t have Zlatan and Paul and Marcos [Roja] and Mata and Jones and Smalling, but I think they are not stupid, they are not naive and they know that we are going to give them a fight,” the United manager said. “I trust the boys, and I know Pep is very intelligent, I know their players are experienced, I know they know it will not be easy.”
Jones and Smalling got another earful from Mourinho for being too “cautious” when he wants the injured defenders to take risks at a time when others are flogging themselves, even if he did claim both still have futures under him. Unlike City, United have already won the Community Shield and EFL Cup and could yet add the Europa League. Success in that competition would also mean automatic qualification for next season’s Champions League and gives United a safety net City do not have. Come the end of May, Mourinho’s campaign could look far superior to that of Guardiola but there is concern that some players are running on empty.
“I think the fact that we are fighting for important things still is a good motivation to keep people together, to make people make an extra effort,” Mourinho said. “Training sessions start at 3pm, I was here at 10.30am and when I arrived some players were already here, taking care of little details, taking care of their recovery and going to the swimming pool and taking care of their body. That is motivation.”
Mourinho suggested on Wednesday that United had played 18 more matches than Chelsea and Liverpool when, in fact, they have played 12 more than Liverpool and 14 more than Chelsea. Less disputable, though, was his view that it would be a “big, big” achievement if United finished such a taxing campaign with three trophies and Champions League qualification. He might be a little more willing to crow at Guardiola’s expense if that happens.