Let the Manchester derby countdown begin! Manchester City picked up yet another win against West Ham on Sunday, and another win which proves the superb character of Pep Guardiola’s team, yet all eyes will surely now turn to next Sunday’s clash at Old Trafford.
Both sides have Champions League games in midweek, yet few of the City players who came from behind to beat the resilient Hammers will make the trip to Ukraine. Kevin De Bruyne, the man who laid on a wonderful assist for David Silva’s winner, will head to Abu Dhabi with his family – at City’s expense.
Many of his team-mates will jet off for a few days in the sun, too, while those who do fly to Ukraine will stay there for four days, as Guardiola tries to best prepare for a meeting with Jose Mourinho.
He can do so with three points in the bag and his team eight points clear. After nearly slipping to a draw against Southampton in midweek, the Catalan picked a strong team against the Londoners here, knowing full well that this would be a far tougher assignment than the league and form tables suggest.
David Moyes’ men came with a plan and they stuck to it. City had little space in which to work their magic and, when they did get some, they usually used it to fire a shot way over the crossbar.
City have faced defensive teams at the Etihad Stadium all season, but they have normally found the crucial breakthrough early enough for it not to be a problem. Here, though, they were too slow, and just before half-time they allowed Angelo Ogbonna a free run at Aaron Creswell’s corner. The Italian powered in a header to give an opposition side their first lead over City in the Premier League since the end of August. Mourinho will have been making notes about City’s set-piece problems.
Guardiola has handed out some dressing room rollickings on several occasions this season, even when his team have been winning, and he would no doubt have been furious with his side’s poor first-half showing.
Just as he did last week at Huddersfield, the City boss brought on Gabriel Jesus for a defender, this time Danilo, in a bid to change the game. It seemed to make an immediate difference.
City duly set about the Hammers with the kind of vigour which was absent in the first half. Adrian made several saves and, in doing so, firmly stated his case to usurp Joe Hart, on loan from City and therefore ineligible to play here, from the starting line-up on a permanent basis.
Yet he could do nothing to stop Nicolas Otamendi equalising with a goal reminiscent of his old mate Sergio Aguero. The two Argentines are similar in appearance but that was not the only uncanny aspect about the equaliser; the centre-back attacked the near post with the kind of killer instinct that has made Aguero City’s all-time leading scorer. It was half-time substitute Jesus, set free by a clever Raheem Sterling backheel, who raced into space to set the goal up.
Guardiola had changed City’s shape at the break; by bringing on Jesus up front and the Blues were a man light in midfield, with De Bruyne in the holding role and Silva ahead of him, but the Catalan did not switch back after his side drew level. West Ham did not venture forwards much more at 1-1, but there was no way City were going to settle for a point.
Sterling, the man who has delivered the last two 2-1 victories in the dying moments, had a fine chance after Adrian made his best stop of the match to deny Jesus, but the in-form England man could not get his feet right.
That has never been much of a problem for De Bruyne or Silva, and it was City’s influential duo who delivered victory. De Bruyne, in his deeper starting position, effortlessly floated in a first-class looping cross, which Silva acrobatically guided into the far corner. Adrian, for once, was rooted to the spot.
Guardiola did then change City’s shape to see out the victory and even risked Fernandinho, who was rested in the first place to avoid a yellow card which would have kept him out of the derby.
And so to that game in a week’s time, and it seems the die has been cast following events this weekend. Paul Pogba’s red card at Arsenal on Saturday will keep him out of the game and may perhaps remove any lingering doubts from Mourinho’s mind about how to approach it. After seeing how well Huddersfield, Southampton and West Ham have done by restricting City and exploiting set-pieces in the last week, he will surely try to repeat the trick.
And few sides will be better equipped to do so. Not only do United have considerably better individual quality than City’s last three opponents, but they have as tall a side as you could imagine.
It may highlight the ideological differences between both Mourinho and Guardiola but the Portuguese will not care one bit about the inevitable criticism and online trolling if Maraoune Fellaini or Romelu Lukaku bundle in a corner following sloppy City marking.
After all, the Blues conceded that way at Huddersfield, were lucky not to do so at least twice against Southampton, and saw Ogbonna punish them on Sunday.
City continue to keep coming up with ways to win these matches, of course, and that is to their endless credit. United are the only team in the country with a 100 per cent home record this season but, if anybody is equipped to pick them apart, it is Guardiola’s firebrands.
Yet by the same token it is probably United who are the one team who can inflict City’s first defeat of the season. United tradition may implore an attacking performance but Mourinho makes no apologies for his much-maligned approach to the big games, and with no Pogba he may well feel even more vindicated than usual.
And, with City highlighting their only real weakness over the past three matches, they are almost begging the arch pragmatist to field a team of giants and put the ball into the box.
There is plenty at stake at Old Trafford; City could move 11 points clear with victory, while United could cut the lead to five and give the Blues something to think about ahead of a game with Spurs a week later. In such circumstances the two managers will only be more likely to stick to what they know.
For that reason it could well be the starkest clash of Mourinho and Guardiola’s respective styles since Inter’s famous victory at Barcelona seven years ago. Let the games begin.