Talking about the prospects of both Manchester clubs for the remainder of the season, Pep Guardiola said on Wednesday: ‘The team that fails less will go to the Champions League.’
It was an interesting angle to take at the business end of a season that we felt would hold so much for Guardiola’s Manchester City and the United side coached by Jose Mourinho. But it also felt about right.
For City, this season is no longer about achievement. It is about meeting minimum requirements after Guardiola labelled his debut season ‘not good’.
For United, too, we are hardly in hallelujah territory. Their season has a slightly more satisfactory ring about it, given that they were coming from further back, have won the EFL Cup and are in the last four of the Europa League.
Still, a tussle for fourth place in the Premier League is an unexpected battleground, one summed up by Mourinho when he spoke to the media yesterday.
Asked what it would mean to finish above City, Mourinho said: ‘Nothing. If you finish fifth and they finish sixth we are above them but it means nothing. If they finish third and we finish fourth they are above us but it means a lot.
‘This is not about Pep or City. This is about fighting for objectives. We want to try to play Champions League and we still have two doors open.’
There were no Pep-Jose fireworks yesterday, though there may be tonight. We should not have been surprised, either. These are two men who have met in a Champions League semi-final and fought over the La Liga title in Spain. Currently, they are competing for English football’s scraps and they are not used to it.
Guardiola said: ‘If you analyse the trophies, how many were we able to win this year? Zero. So it’s simple. If you analyse how many titles was good or not good, then the season was not good. It was not as good as I’d expect.’
The context of tonight’s game is straightforward. United have not been ahead of City in the Premier League since August and trailed them by as many as 10 points after 13 games of the season and by seven just over a month ago.
Victory for Mourinho’s side tonight, though, would move United into the top four and push City down to fifth.
It would represent a remarkable turnaround, even if United still have difficult-looking fixtures at Tottenham and Arsenal to come.
Tonight both teams will suffer from absent players. City are waiting on a fitness report about their influential midfield player David Silva while United are without a clutch of players, most notably Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
At the weekend Mourinho spoke controversially about his injured defenders Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, suggesting they should play through the pain to make themselves available. Neither will feature tonight and Mourinho repeated his words yesterday, adding only that both would be given further opportunities under him in the future.
‘Of course,’ he said. ‘I hope this season. It’s not just about them. It’s about the philosophy and mentality (of people) around them.So we go into this game with the players we have.
‘Maybe opponents look at us with different eyes because we don’t have Zlatan and Paul and Rojo and Mata and Jones and Smalling. But I think they are not stupid, they are not naive and they know that we are going to give them a fight.’
United will begin as underdogs tonight and perhaps that’s right. They are away — Mourinho’s away record against Guardiola features just one victory — and their recent fixture programme has been gruelling.
But which version of Guardiola’s City will we get? The one that beat their neighbours impressively at Old Trafford in September or the one that failed to hold a lead against Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final this last weekend?
That may be definitive but the broader picture remains the same.
Guardiola joked yesterday that he and Mourinho ‘high-five’ when they pass in the street in Manchester. A ridiculous notion, not least because this is a season that has given neither men anything of great significance to celebrate.