Manchester — After the phony war of their first season in Manchester, the rivalry between Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola will resume for real in Sunday’s seismic showdown at Old Trafford.
The two managers renewed acquaintances at the start of last season after Mourinho took the reins at Manchester United and Guardiola set up shop across town at Manchester City.
Guardiola claimed first blood, leading City to a 2-1 win at Old Trafford in September 2016, but both teams ended the campaign well adrift of Premier League champions Chelsea.
Fifteen games into the new season, City are eight points clear of United at the head of the table and Sunday’s game is being billed as Mourinho’s big chance to stick a spoke in Guardiola’s wheels.
"We have a big week, with Swansea and Tottenham following the United game," says City midfielder Kevin de Bruyne. "If we lost two out of three and they win everything, they are there."
The arrival in Manchester of the two pre-eminent managers of the age stoked a bitter personal rivalry that started during the two years they spent in opposing camps in Spain.
Mourinho’s first season at Real Madrid, in 2010-11, culminated in an infamously spiky series of matches against Guardiola’s Barcelona, who claimed a La Liga and Champions League double.
Madrid finished the 2011-12 season as champions and Guardiola, worn out by the constant sniping, stepped down at Camp Nou and would not resurface for another year. When he did it was at Bayern Munich.
The men’s September 2016 reunion promised much, Guardiola’s slick City wiping the floor with United in the first half before a Claudio Bravo blunder enabled Zlatan Ibrahimovic to make a game of it in the second. But by the time of their most recent meeting, at the Etihad Stadium in April, thoughts of an all-Manchester title shoot-out had vanished.
A grim 0-0 draw left both teams locked in a battle for fourth place as Antonio Conte’s Chelsea streaked towards glory.
City eventually finished third as United trailed home in sixth place, but Mourinho led his team to a League Cup and Europa League double.
Seven months on, City look almost transcendent. Their sublime and devastatingly effective possession football is reminiscent of Guardiola’s great Barcelona team. Having won their last 13 league games, they can set a new mark for successive wins within an English top-flight campaign on Sunday.
Recent results, however, give United reason for optimism.
While City have had to grind out wins, Mourinho’s counter-attacking United have hit form. They followed up impressive wins at Watford and Arsenal with a 2-1 defeat of CSKA Moscow, which sent them into the Champions League last 16. They have not lost at home since 2016’s loss to City.
There was a glint of the old malice in Mourinho’s eye after United’s win over CSKA on Tuesday when he suggested Guardiola was being untruthful by expressing doubts about the fitness of Spanish playmaker David Silva.
It is a look Guardiola knows all too well and its reappearance indicates the biggest managerial rivalry of recent times is about to erupt again.