This was to be Manchester’s season, the one in which the two most famous managers in world football would go head to head for the Premier League.
Their story had everything. One’s game was all about style, the other’s was all about winning. They did not much like each other. In Spain, they had driven the rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid to even greater levels of toxicity. This season would be Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier played out over 38 games.
So here we were on a Thursday night wondering whether Pep Guardiola or Jose Mourinho would manage to finish the season in fourth place. This has been a season in which the title race has been confined to a single city but the city is London, which has become the centre of English football as it has of so much else.
Given the expectations in August, a Manchester derby at the end of April was as irrelevant as it ever could be. Either side of half time, Leroy Sane and Kevin de Bruyne failed to complete basic six-yard passes and sent the ball dribbling out of play. The cameras panned to Guardiola, sitting on the bench, clutching a water bottle, staring at the floor. He wasn’t in Barcelona or Munich any more.
The summer transfer season is almost upon us, weeks in which we will read that United are closing in on Anton Griezmann, as if the striker were a piece of prey, or that City will bid £100m for Kylian Mbappe. These are two forwards who will play Champions League semi-finals.
If they were handed a video of this match they might ask themselves what either Manchester club could offer them aside from more money and a chance to see what Mourinho and Guardiola are like close up. If they come, it will not be for the football.
The sight of Marouane Fellaini being led wild-eyed from the pitch after what even by his standards was a ludicrous red card might be a reminder of the Premier League’s famous ‘passion’. You can get that kind of passion in pub football.
Of the two men, Mourinho could claim to have advanced Manchester United further than Guardiola has taken City. Eric Bailly was the dominant figure of this match and had Guardiola signed him from Villarreal, as the Ivorian centre-half spent the first part of the summer believing he would, then Manchester City’s defence might not have become the problem it is.
As it was Bailly received a phone call from a Portuguese mobile, found he was speaking to Mourinho and Manchester United found themselves with an upgraded Nemanja Vidic. Marcus Rashford, who had put Martin Demichelis on his backside in his first Manchester derby, again produced some lovely touches, particularly a beautiful flick to take the ball at speed past Nicolas Otamendi.
Manchester United were the lesser side in this derby, particularly in the second half when more and more buses kept being parked in front of City’s forwards but they are ending the season in better shape than they began it.
Given that Manchester City started out with 10 straight wins, which made Guardiola seem like a footballing god come down from Olympus, you could not say the same of the home team. There were flashes of skill, a reminder that if Sergio Aguero does take his leave of the Etihad Stadium, Manchester City will be losing one of the greats.
Gabriel Jesus’s disallowed goal was a sign that Aguero’s long-term successor has already been found.
Nevertheless, the sight of a goalkeeper being taken off injured usually sends a tremor of fear around the stands. However, Claudio Bravo is a goalkeeper who receives a sarcastic cheer whenever he takes a cross cleanly, which is how he had come to injure himself.
As an example of football’s failed Northern Powerhouse, a stale, goalless draw was probably the perfect result.