Jose Mourinho vs Pep Guardiola: A Catalan war fought in Manchester
10 years ago in 2008, as Barcelona prepared to make a managerial change to replace Frank Rijkaard, the stage was set for a battle between Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola to take up empty managerial position. Pep eventually landed the job, leading Barcelona to glory domestically and in Europe. However, Jose, who coached the Catalans when Bobby Robson was in charge, felt undone. A rivalry was born, not just a rivalry with Barcelona, but an intense battle with Pep, which boiled over when Jose finally managed Real Madrid and led them to the league title. As both men have moved on from the confrontational past, the stage is set all over again for a long drawn battle for supremacy in Manchester.
Going back a few more years, it is 2004, as Old Trafford faithful braced themselves for a historic night of European football semi-final, Jose Mourinho was busy sketching the plan of running down the touchline to celebrate with his players. As it played out, Porto knocked out Manchester United out of the competition, Mr. Mourinho announced his arrival on the grandest of stages by outclassing a United team managed by Sir Alex. A young manager from Portugal, with no influential family ties or favors, dished out had made it to the very top of football. He went on to manage Chelsea, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, a record that can be boasted by very few. But a homecoming was always on the cards, there was no doubt, Jose was one day going to manage United, which was accurately predicted by the greatest manager in British football.
The three years at United has been bittersweet for Jose, as is expected. Managing a team of United's stature is not easy. But Jose has given the red side of Manchester lots to be happy about, as grumblings of 'attractive football' linger around. It is conveniently forgotten how previous managers of United have also faced similar hurdles, including Sir Alex. However, United is a team that is not one of the masses; we support our manager, our players and believe that the club is bigger than individuals. A comeback win against City last season prevented them from celebrating the league success. The win against Juventus earlier this week seems an important victory. The comeback against Newcastle a few weeks ago probably resurrected Jose's career.
Pep, on the other hand, has gotten Manchester City playing attractive, possession-based football. The defenders maintain a high line, the strikers can shoot at will and wingers can make runs that Jose would go ballistic about. The results are magnificent though. Convincingly beating teams in the Premier League and in Europe. Questions on Pep's preference for short-term projects can be the only limitation currently. With the Manchester derby on Sunday, are we going to witness another Jose vs Pep, time will tell.
Bottom-line is clear though. A victory on Sunday will put United firmly back in the hunt for a top four position. A win for City will take them top of the league. How times have changed. The rebuilding process at United since 2013 has been far from ideal. The club has lacked inspiration, clearly demonstrated by decisions taken by the board with transfers and eventual undermining of the manager over the summer. Ironically enough, Jose has been the spark we have been looking for. The man is truly inspired by the snub received in 2008. He is deeply affected by it. For a humble man, coming from a small town in Portugal, to be selected by Mr. Robson of all people for his backroom staff, to miss out on the job at Barcelona was unfair. Credit to Jose for moving on from the disappointment. But the after-effects are still felt whenever Jose and Pep square off against each other.
I have been watching United for 12 years now. I have seen Beckham run down the touchline, Giggs and Scholes distributing passes for fun, Nistelrooy bullying defenders, Roy Keane terrifying the opposition and his own team. And to top it all, Sir Alex sat in the dugout for a major portion of my time as a Manchester United fan. I have witnessed last minute winners, a Champions League victory, and League titles year after year. If there is a manager who can bring that back, it is Jose. When Jose first came to England and held the press conference where he proclaimed to be the 'Special One', he startled Sir Alex. He was surprised how confident and competent Mourinho was. Jose's teams hit the ground running; they don't give space and they don't aspire to play the beautiful football. Is that not how Sir Alex started? Absolutely.
Jose Mourinho has the backing of the Stretford End. They serenade him match after match. That is what Jose is about. He is about war, a war with the system, war with the opposition, a war with the media. The blockade mentality. Sunday, when the curtains are raised to yet another derby, the cameras will be panning to Jose and Pep more often. Every smile, comment and interaction will be looked at with intrigue. If not for the Barcelona element of the Jose vs Pep relationship, we might not have had the opportunity to see a rivalry that is unfolding. United fans will not care about the rivalry come Sunday, they are busy composing songs for Mourinho, for he has the support and commitment from the fans. Another episode in the Jose and Pep story will unfold on Sunday and we cannot wait!