Previewing the Manchester derby and what could be the most watched Premier League match in history, Thierry Henry summed up the dilemma.
“We all want United to beat City because we want the Premier League to be a race,” admitted the Frenchman, who for a period at Arsenal was the most exciting and skilful player in the League and one of the greatest talents we have ever seen on the English stage.
The Live broadcast of Sunday’s Old Trafford showdown between Manchester rivals United and City will be beamed into one billion homes across 189 countries. And the anticipated combined value of the starting line ups – that could top £650 million – could make this the most expensive football match ever staged.
But the football superstar turned pundit, who is now on the coaching staff for the super stylish Belgium national team, struck at the heart of the matter when he added: “If you don’t love the way Manchester City play you don’t love football.
Before I get swamped by messages from fellow Manchester United fans, and I have passionately supported the Reds for half a century, let me say this: “Yes, at times this season United have played some breathtaking football.”
Last weekend’s 3-1 win at Arsenal was the stand out game of the season by far. And I would definitely not bet against Jose Mourinho leading United to the Champions League in May, the 50th anniversary of our historic first triumph in 1968.
But the difference in the contrasting philosophies between Guardiola and Mourinho is clear, and giving sleepless nights to some of United’s most passionate fans.
Pep will never sacrifice his purist principles in his quest to deliver fantasy football. For me he is the modern day version of the great Sir Matt Busby, the former Manchester City player who made United the most popular football team on the planet post-war when he survived the tragic Munich Air disaster of 1958.
The truth is that Guardiola has elevated City to a new level with a dazzling team of free flowing footballers who are good enough to emulate United’s historic treble winning season of 1999 under Sir Alex Ferguson.
Kevin de Bruyne, in my view vying for the title of best midfielder in world football, and the equally pivotal David Silva are the magicians at the centre of an extraordinary City band of entertainers that Guardiola has moulded into his vision of a dream team.
Then there is serial winner Mourinho, who has already added two cups to United’s trophy cabinet in his first season, while his opposite number finished his first campaign empty handed across the City.
Paul Pogda, crucially ruled out of Sunday’s showdown because of his red card at Arsenal, has also been performing to world class standards this season. While Marcus Rashford is one of the most exciting young talents in the Premier League. And David de Gea is without question the best goalkeeper in the world.
But here is the most fundamental difference between a Guardiola team and a Mourinho team.
When the chips are down Jose never has any reservations about parking the bus if he thinks those are the tactics that are best suited to reaching the final destination in the race for silverware.
Whether or not the responsibility and demands of sitting in the Old Trafford hot seat will ultimately change Mourinho remains to be seen. There is no doubt he’s adapted better than many expected. But I doubt he will ever throw away his inhibitions and unconditionally adopt a philosophy of style over tactics.
Henry offered wonderful insight into the mind of Pep Guardiola when he revealed that in one of his pre-match team talks the Spaniard told Henry and the rest of the Barcelona squad before the 2009 Champions League Final against Manchester United: “All I want is at the end of the game for people to ring me and say wow your team play good football.”
“He has taken football to another level. He’s done it at Barcelona and now he’s doing at Manchester City,” contributed Darren Gough in a fascinating Drive Time discussion with Henry on TalkSport.
How United respond at Old Trafford and deal with the threat of the Premier league’s prolific top goalscorers – 62 goals in 23 games so far this season – is the most fascinating question posed this season.
As an eternal optimist I pray that Mourinho does throw caution to the wind, even without Pogba, and that United do put City to the sword with a feast of exciting football.
In Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Rashford, United do have players with the speed and quality who can hurt City. While Romelu Lukaku still needs to prove himself in the biggest games. And this is his big chance to win over the doubters.
The bookmakers narrowly favour a City win, with Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero also joint favourites to open the scoring. If Pep Guardiola’s side win they will equal the all-time English top-flight league record of 14 consecutive victories, set by Arsenal between February and August 2002.
What is certain is that the whole world will be watching with huge anticipation. And however the contest pans out this is a match United must win to stay in the title race. A win for City and there is no way that the bookmakers, who have already paid out on Guardiola’s team winning the title, will be embarrassed.
BY JOHN GUBBA