They had good reason to grimace already, so the two Manchester football managers would have done well to avoid reports from Spain this week. Quietly and without ceremony, a next generation Barcelona side – average age 21 – eased to a 4-0 win over Belarusian side BATE Borisov at the Nou Camp.
It is a story which explains why Barcelona obsess United and City in equal measure and why Sir Alex Ferguson has become especially mesmerised with the elixir of youth as he moves towards his 71st year. His televised discussion with his former goalkeeper Fabien Barthez passed almost without comment amid the euphoria of his 25th anniversary at United last month, but it revealed how the idea of conquering with young players has taken an extraordinary hold of him. "My philosophy has always been with young players. I prefer young players," he told Barthez. "The foundation is built upon a collection of players who stay for a long time. It is easy, then, to build a family of people who grow together."
Notice how a defence of youth was also the first thought on Ferguson's mind in the bitter chill of defeat in Basle on Wednesday which commits United to the Europa League. "We have enough young players to get us through," he said. There is a certain valour in maintaining the course on which he has set United and a romance, binding him to the club's glorious past. But United's catastrophic exit from the tournament has, frankly, revealed that the young players are not ready.
United have trudged dismally around England and Europe in the past three months and even factoring in Ferguson's ability to confound the doubters it is difficult to foresee them retaining the Premier League title from the place they are in. United, who sacrificed domestic ascendancy to Chelsea after their group-stage elimination six years ago, are in flux. It may take them some time to emerge, given Ferguson's little-reported admission last autumn, at the height of the saga in which Wayne Rooney questioned United's ability to sign "world-class players". "When you see Manchester United at the moment with all these young players, 14 under 22, you can see Manchester United three years ahead," Ferguson said on 21 October 2010 – the night of Rooney's searing statement, questioning the club's ambition.
The problem is that no club can afford to wait three years. Barcelona have struck gold in recognising that the youth-team coach is the second most important professional at their club and anointing that individual – Guardiola – as first-team coach.
The mood across at Manchester City was far less dark yesterday. Roberto Mancini reiterated that he feels his club are not in the same bracket as Barcelona, Real Madrid or even Bayern Munich, though their own net spend has left him believing that his time will come next autumn. This explained the good humour with which he batted away the insults of the former Arsenal keeper Jens Lehmann.
But Mancini's board do not think the sky is entirely blue and Barça are, again, the cloud. The time has arrived, in the landscape of financial fair play, when City must sell if they are to buy and must draw on their own young, too. Yet there is an acceptance that the quality of their under-19s leaves them light years behind the Catalan side. Remember the names of Denis Suarez, Abdul Razak and Karim Rekik, certainly, but precious few others seem to belong to the future.
Perhaps the city of Manchester's hopes of European supremacy rest with the belief that all clubs' success is cyclical. Ferguson ruminated after last May's Champions League final on "whether [Barcelona] can replace that team at some point" and concluded "it's always difficult" Events in Spain seem to remove that slim hope.