It doesn’t matter how great a team is: there’s always another that seems to exist solely to be a thorn in their side. Take Lord Ferg’s Manchester United, for example, who rode roughshod over everybody during the late-1990s and early-2000s, yet found myriad ways to debase themselves against Southampton. Bob Paisley’s Liverpool made a habit of losing to Leicester City. As did Bill Shankly’s Liverpool. As did Gérard Houllier’s Liverpool (who weren’t so great, but rule of three and all that). Even the almighty Arsenal Invincibles had a nemesis: Middlesbrough beat them twice during 2003-04. Admittedly that was in the Carling Cup, but they did do that and you can’t say it didn’t happen. Oh Juninho! Oh Boudewijn! How could you compromise the nomenclature!
There’s something of a David/Goliath (think Dundee United/Barcelona only with more religion and rocks) vibe about all of this. So what, then, to think about Pep Guardiola’s epochal Manchester City? You see, they’ve been in their trophy-winning pomp for a few years now, so you’d think they’d have sourced at least one minor irritant who regularly grinds their gears. But City think bigger and are built to grander specifications, so the inescapable agents of their downfall are scaled up accordingly: Tottenham, Liverpool, and perhaps most irritatingly of all, those suspiciously quiet neighbours Manchester United, who have won on three of their last four visits to the Etihad despite being proper bobbins during the period in question. A right regular crosstown caper, with the promise of more bogey-team levity to come this weekend.
Those of a City bent will legitimately counter that statistic by pointing to the result of the one game of the four United didn’t win, in which they were obliterated 4-1 just seven months ago. But that was before the arrival of Erik ten Hag, and the concomitant upturn in United’s form. City meanwhile haven’t been quite up to their usual lofty standards – allowing their midfield to be overrun by Miguel Almirón, failing to beat a team set up by Steven Gerrard, etc – and while our sources tell us good things about this Erling Haaland, any plus points he’ll bring will be mere marginal gains when set against the swingeing instant improvement made to United now that a knacked Harry Maguire will be sat in the stands.
City rightly go into the derby as favourites, but should United keep up their promising early-season momentum on Sunday and make it four Etihad wins out of five, they’ll be just a couple of points behind the champions with a game in hand. That possible outcome may give Pep pause, perhaps ensuring City approach the derby with an extra soupçon of care, if not trepidation. Still, worst case: while defeat to their Mancunian rivals would be highly irritating, at least history will show that, unlike all the other great teams that went before, this iteration of Manchester City only ever lost to clubs of similarly mega statu … hold on, we’ve just remembered the number of times they’ve been given the runaround by Crystal Palace. Ah well, apologies to Roy Hodgson, and indeed, dear reader, to you. You get the general gist.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
28 September: “The break is always generally good, it gives you time, especially in this business. It gives you time to analyse, to assess, and the boys a little bit of rest after a heavy schedule” – Hull City boss Shota Arveladze, readies himself for the Championship game against Luton on Friday night.
30 September: “It became clear our views weren’t aligned” – chairman Acun Ilicali decides the morning of said game, after a fortnight of international break, is the time to give Arveladze the boot.
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