By Richard Buxton
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – Manchester’s football revolution may continue to be televised but it is still not forthcoming.
Frustratingly little has emerged from a season which had promised so much from both Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho. Their paths have crossed many times – Wednesday’s 0-0 draw was the 19th meeting in eight seasons – but never before anywhere near as underwhelming.
What had previously appeared destined to be a Premier League title decider was downgraded to midweek under-card in a top four fight for which neither side had anticipated nor, seemingly, appeared to have stomached an appetite. Only that yearning for Champions League qualification prevented anything other than civic pride being taken away from a largely forgettable 174th encounter between the city’s two clubs.
Such was the poor standard on show at the Etihad Stadium that it vindicated England coach Gareth Southgate’s decision to take in a rugby match instead of endure 96 minutes of predominantly stagnant pattern play and half-chances, with precious little at stake.
That, in essence, has been the story of the season for the managers of both Manchester City and Manchester United. Mourinho and Guardiola were supposed to steal focus back on England’s northern powerhouse from a growing pool of contenders in London. But the title will once again be residing south of the M60 motorway this summer.
They cannot take all of the rap for the region’s underperforming sides; Liverpool’s lack of conviction saw their premature coronation as Premier League champions-elect unravel before the first month of 2017 had concluded. It does, however, illustrate just how far the pair’s respective careers have fared since they were duking it out in the first leg of a Champions League semifinal, exactly six years ago.
Back then, the “Special One” had cried foul of a conspiracy to prevent his Real Madrid side from reaching the pinnacle of Europe’s elite club competition; in that respect, at least, little has changed as he lamented Marouane Fellaini’s sending off after 19 seconds of madness.
“I have just three details: Marouane says that it’s a red card because it’s Maroaune,” Mourinho stated
“Martin Atkinson [the referee] told me that, in his opinion, it is a red card. But I saw Aguero in the tunnel and no broken nose, no broken head, his face is nice as always. I think if Sergio doesn’t go to the floor, for sure, it’s not a red card. But if Marouane gave him the chance to do that, I don’t know.
“What I know is we played 15 minutes with 10 [men] and the boys were absolutely amazing in the way they fought for the point.”
Neither club, nor manager, will look back on this campaign with much fondness, even if United’s travelling supporters took a greater delight from the final whistle than their hosts.
Given the aggressive attempts by City to emulate Barcelona’s infrastructure since their original courtship broke off in 2012, Guardiola’s lack of success has become far more amplified. He remains under no illusions that he has vastly under-performed.
For the first time since he stepped up to senior management, the Catalan will end a campaign empty-handed. It is only the fresh memories delivering, among others, three La Liga and Bundesliga titles apiece as well as two Champions Leagues which strengthens beliefs that he can still turn back the clock and prevents him facing greater scrutiny.
Significant changes have been made, albeit in the wrong areas. Reuniting with Claudio Bravo has been anything other than a resounding success. This was another example of his ex-Barca lieutenant at his most calamitous. Handing Henrikh Mkhitaryan, quite literally, the perfect chance to open the scoring was followed later by a premature withdrawal after injuring himself when he had been more successful in cross-collecting.
There is a sense that attention will be shifting towards the opposing end of the field, with Sergio Aguero enduring another fruitless night in front of goal. He attempted to take the fight to United and had already recorded more shots at their defence – seven – than any other opposition player this season with barely 50 minutes played. He should have snatched victory in the final minutes of added time when an enticing cross found him at the far post. Another flawed execution told the tale of his latest frustrating outing and the absence of David Silva, whose ability unlock space allows the Argentine to flourish.
Guardiola continues to promise that next season will be a very different experience for City. Fans accustomed to major trophies being paraded on an annual basis under its Abu Dhabi ownership are hoping it will be more like what was advertised in the brochure.
“The better result would be to win the game and to be in third position,” Guardiola said.
“But it’s still in our hands [to reach the Champions League]. It’s important that we have five games left; three at home, two away.
“When every game will be a battle like today because considering how our average in chances created and chances scored, so it’s lower all the season and that’s why we have to fight a lot to win the games.”
The challenge for Mourinho is undoubtedly far greater, given United’s fall from grace in the post-Alex Ferguson era. For a coach accustomed to resolving problems with transfer largesse, he is discovering that Old Trafford’s issues cannot be cleansed by a few record signings.
Fellaini’s craziness in tripping Aguero before head butting him in swift succession will leave Mourinho facing a selection headache for Sunday’s visit of Swansea City and a north London double header with Arsenal and Tottenham which may see their hopes of a Champions League return hinging again on a backdoor entry via Europe’s secondary cup competition, the Europa League.
This was the type of game that Jorge Valdano, Mourinho’s former nemesis at the Bernabeu, had previously likened to “a s*** hanging from a stick” almost a decade ago, during the Portuguese’s time in charge at Chelsea.
He would be hard pressed to find anyone willing to describe what transpired at the Etihad as anything close to resembling artwork.
Richard Buxton is a UK-based writer and special correspondent for Sportsnet. He filed this report from Manchester’s Etihad Stadium.