Falling below expectations

Falling below expectations

Football: Mourinho and Guardiola have not lived up to their lofty standards in their first year at Manchester

Falling below expectations
This time, it felt more local, more intimate. The first Manchester derby of the season, in September, was a global event. The city had been declared the “capital of football," home not to just to two astonishingly wealthy, unapologetically ambitious clubs, but to the two finest managers of their generation, too — two intractable foes. That first clash had the air of a game the world was watching.

Seven months later, eyes have wandered elsewhere. In the Premier League, it is London that boasts the last two teams standing in the title race, in Chelsea and Tottenham. The FA Cup will have an all-London final, too. With due respect to the denizens of Monte Carlo and Turin, the Champions League’s heavyweights are in Madrid. Manchester has been relegated to the undercard.

Derby nights, of course, are not occasions for the bigger picture. When the final whistle blew to conclude a 0-0 draw at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium on Thursday, the glee of Manchester United’s fans was not tempered by the fact that their team, the most expensive squad ever assembled, was scrambling to finish fourth in the league.

No, all that mattered — for that moment — was that their team had not been beaten by Man City. It was enough, for now, that a witless game given a mindless denouement by Marouane Fellaini’s dimwitted head butt on Sergio Aguero had not ended in defeat. Sometimes, victory is not in claiming a trophy or even winning a game, but in stifling a rival, in staving off the taunts and jeers in the office the next morning.

At some point, though, both of these teams will have to reflect on why a season that promised so much has delivered so little; so, too, will their highly praised, lucratively rewarded managers, José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, two men who forged their enmity at the game’s summit and who now find themselves together again, trying to find their way out of base camp.

It would be an exaggeration — an unnecessary and, above all, premature one — to suggest that either Guardiola or Mourinho has failed in his first season in Manchester.

Even Mourinho believes Guardiola will lead City to a place in next year’s Champions League. Mourinho himself could yet finish in the top four and add the Europa League to his victory in the League Cup. If that is failure, it is the sort almost every other club in the country would welcome.

And yet there can be no doubt that neither man has met his own expectations, or those heaped upon them by their respective teams’ fans. Guardiola was greeted in England with a sort of messianic fervor; City had pursued him relentlessly for four years. He was supposed to not just transform the club into a modern superpower, but to drag English soccer as a whole along behind him. Mourinho was more circumspect. “Anything above fourth would be amazing for us,” he declared while on United’s pre-season tour of the United States. But even as he said that, he did not hide his ambition.

He wanted his team to aim for the Premier League title, he said; he had built his reputation, after all, on being as close a thing to a guarantee of immediate success as soccer can muster. He had won league titles in his first season at FC Porto and at Chelsea, the first time around, and later at Inter Milan. He has never been a manager for tomorrow, but he has made up for that for making today glorious.

With five games of the season still to go, though, both he and Guardiola find themselves far from their usual haunts at the top of the table, not failures but certainly not successes, not in a sense that they would recognise or their standards would demand; inseparable even now, their trajectories seemingly in lockstep.

Why? Both might point to mitigating circumstances: Mourinho did, drawing attention to United’s injury problems and its onerous workload. “We have played 18 more games than Liverpool, almost half a Premier League season,” he said in reference to one of the two teams that might yet deny one or both of the Manchester clubs access to the Champions League.

He could point, with some justification, to bad luck, too: United has developed an unhappy habit of missing chances, as well as an intense, magnetic relationship with sundry posts and crossbars.

Guardiola, for his part, might mention that City’s squad is an aging and unbalanced one, one allowed to drift by the club’s sporting director, Txiki Begiristain; he, too, has plenty of spurned opportunities and inopportune injuries to bemoan.

Both, though, would find little consolation in doing so. They are not so different, Guardiola and Mourinho, not in character. Both are perfectionists. Both are single-minded, relentless, compulsive winners. One of his current players calls Guardiola a “fanatic,” a description that fits Mourinho nicely, too.

They will both know that their reputations are too lofty to permit them to decry cruel fate. Clubs hire them because they are good enough to solve problems, to overcome challenges, to conquer luck. They have not been able to do so this season. They will both be handed so much money in the summer that next year will brook no excuses.

After all, it is not just the Manchester clubs that have fallen short this year. It is Guardiola and Mourinho, too, two magicians who have not been able to cast their spells.

Fail to do so again and, at some point, their reputations will start to suffer. This Manchester derby was about local pride, the resentment that festers in close quarters. It will not be like that again. For both Mourinho and Guardiola, the world will be watching.