Time to renew rivalry

Time to renew rivalry


Time to renew rivalry

It says everything about modern football that the first meeting between the two Manchester clubs under their new managers is scheduled to take place 5,000 miles away in Beijing on July 25.

Manchester City, with Pep Guardiola as its coach, will meet Manchester United, with Jose Mourinho, in the Bird's Nest Stadium as part of the International Champions Cup.

Neither club is a champion of anything, except perhaps in spending power. The tournament is a marketing exercise to cash in on the global appeal of the game in far-off places from where the clubs normally play.

City is owned by the ruling family of Abu Dhabi. United is the property of the Glazer family of Florida. The two clubs are not even four miles apart in Manchester, yet are symbols of soccer's globalism today.

City said it was getting rid of its Chilean coach, Manuel Pellegrini, and would buy out the remainder of his contract once it knew that Guardiola was prepared to leave his job at Bayern Munich.

City finished fourth in the English Premier League, marginally qualifying for next season's Champions League. Once again, one has to take the word ‘champion’ with a pinch of salt because, as Saturday’s Champions League final confirms, it is no longer necessary to be the top dog in a country to go all the way in the tournament.

Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid will play that final in Milan. Barcelona, which just won the Spanish league and Spanish Cup for a second straight year, didn't make the Champions League finale. Nor, by a long shot, did the Manchesters.

Over the next few days and weeks, City will spend whatever it takes to get the players Guardiola wants. United has already begun hunting down the stars identified by Mourinho, one of them being the free agent and self-styled legend Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Even at 34, Ibrahimovic remains a box-office draw. And he still is able to score apparently at will — or at least he was able to with Paris St.-Germain, his last club.

But the real business — selling the players that Guardiola and Mourinho think won't fit in their system and buying ones that will — could cost the Manchester rivals somewhere near half a billion dollars.

Their first coming together in Beijing is guaranteed to be bogus, with both clubs missing many top players after the Euro 2016 and Copa America Centenario tournaments.

But there is real animosity between Guardiola and Mourinho, sparked from their time together in the late '90s at Barcelona, where Guardiola was the team captain and Mourinho was an assistant to the head coach, Louis van Gaal — the same coach that United fired to make room for Mourinho.

That animus resurfaced when Barcelona preferred Guardiola as its new coach in 2008. Mourinho instead took charge of the Italian champion, Inter Milan, with which he won a Champions League title, and later coached Real Madrid.

Their styles could hardly be further apart. Guardiola, with more than a little help from Xavi Hernández and Lionel Messi, won everything in sight, playing with a flow that was as close as anyone could imagine to the Beautiful Game established by Brazil in the 1970s.

Mourinho, despite the considerable riches he inherited at Real Madrid, with a team built around Cristiano Ronaldo, set out to destroy that stylish Guardiola approach by instructing Real’s gifted players to rough up their Barcelona rivals during their matchups. (In some cases, this involved Real players kicking their colleagues on the Spanish national team.)

The abrasiveness of Mourinho’s approach crystallised in 2011, when he poked the eye of Guardiola’s assistant, Tito Vilanova, in full view of spectators in the stadium.

Guardiola, the seeker of purist soccer, vs Mourinho, the dark destroyer, is one way of depicting this rivalry. But it takes 11 players to make a team and carry out a style, and part of the reason van Gaal was fired — effectively on the same day that his team won the FA Cup — was the fact that Mourinho was available for hire and pushing for the job.

Even as van Gaal hugged the Cup at Wembley Stadium, the United supporters were numbed by the Dutchman's approach. It was pragmatic; it was boring. It won the FA Cup, but by finishing fifth in the Premier League, the club missed out on the Champions League next season and the $100 million or so that comes with it.

The owners of both clubs are a world away from Manchester, in the Middle East and the United States. They may not understand the almost-tribal rivalry between two clubs that are situated so close to each other. Their bottom line is commerce. If the men they appoint to run their clubs — former Barcelona executives in the case of City and an English accounting expert at United — tell them to switch the coaches, then that is what they do.

And it is coaches, plural. Both Guardiola and Mourinho operate with a cast of trusted aides, assistants who go where and when the main man moves on.

Van Gaal once joked that he has learned the art of delegation. He no longer had to get hands-on with his players because he hired a plethora of men to do that.

Van Gaal has flown away, with a payoff reported to be close to $9 million, to what he has called his paradise, the Portuguese coastal resort of Algarve.

And Manchester is buzzing again. Guardiola and Mourinho might never have chosen to be such close neighbors, but the die is cast.