The two clubs are still at each other’s throats and in more ways than you would imagine. The new Catalan influence at Manchester City has brought a deep conviction that they, rather than Manchester United, must recruit all the best young local players and if evidence were needed of how much of an obsession that is, then you only had to talk to chief executive Ferran Soriano in the crowd as City’s Under-19s thrashed the Czech champions Viktoria Plzen on Tuesday morning.
“Too soon to know,” he said to the idea of whether any of this group could serve Manuel Pellegrini. He’s looking to the overwhelmingly Mancunian Under-14s and Under-13s – both English national champions last season – to break United’s stranglehold. People around the club will tell you that City in 1968 were the last team to win the league by fielding 11 Englishmen.
That’s how the future battle of Manchester looks, though for this weekend its scope is the 90 minutes on the Etihad turf tomorrow afternoon. The landscape has changed utterly, of course. There will be less counting – both of wristwatch seconds and of City managers to have been sacked since a certain United incumbent took up his seat in 1986: a number which reached 20, including caretakers, by the time Sir Alex Ferguson departed the scene. There will be less mud slung. And there will be no Carlos Tevez – that totem of the almighty struggle between the two clubs. But all that has vanished will be replaced by a newer, keener kind of desperation. For both David Moyes and Pellegrini, winning is a deeply necessary means of cementing what have been relatively inauspicious domestic beginnings in the city.
Moyes looked the more relaxed, with humour simply not a part of the repertoire for Pellegrini, whose dead-bat declaration that “I will not analyse David Moyes here” confirmed the general expectation that pre-match conversation would not scale the heights of recent years.
By rights, the summer should have left Moyes on the back foot, nursing anxieties about City winning all the boardroom bragging rights, assembling the Premier League’s strongest squad while the usually serene United flailed around for three awful months. But this Glaswegian grin was as wide as the Irwell – “Afternoon ladies,” Moyes declared as he took up a seat among a group numbering none – and in the discussion that ensued there was a sense that he feels he has captured the one heart he needed most.
The struggle with a recalcitrant Wayne Rooney made his own acclimatisation desperately difficult this summer and though he had Ferguson’s incendiary declaration that Rooney wanted a transfer to thank for that, Moyes felt that the knight of the realm’s praise for the striker on Thursday night might have healed the wound.
“When you get a compliment from Sir Alex you take it for what it is. I don’t say he doesn’t give them out freely but I’m sure Wayne will have heard that,” said Moyes, in another intricately constructed discussion of the 27-year-old’s return to form, designed not to offend a player who is so easily offended where Ferguson is concerned. “We’ve got to remember it was Wayne who has put himself [back in form]. Wayne who has done the hard work. So it’s not to do with David Moyes or Sir Alex Ferguson.”
Moyes added that Rooney had “got a bit of toughness” back. “I wouldn’t say he’s lost that,” he added, continuing this discursive tightrope walk. “But I think folk might say ‘I don’t see it quite as much about him.’ I think mentally he’s probably got a bit of a cause in his head.”
The “cause” being amplified by the fact that one goal can make him the all-time top scorer in Manchester derbies, moving ahead of Joe Hayes and Francis Lee’s 10 strikes. Rooney flourishes in derbies.
The difficult part about Sunday is that Moyes must recast himself now. He has always been a street fighter, where City are concerned, remembering yesterday that it was nothing less than “envy” he felt when City – in whom he had always seen symmetries with his own Everton side, as the second club in a metropolis – got their Abu Dhabi millions and soared away. He joked about the March night in 2010 when he came close to giving Roberto Mancini a Glasgow kiss as they clashed during Everton’s 2-0 win at the Etihad. “I just think that in a strange way our players at Everton fed off it,” he said. “We were discussing it. We talked about. The Everton players saw that was it; that was the way we were.”
Now Moyes is the manager of the side whose hegemony others strive to shatter, with the insecurities that come with his inheritance manifest in so many ways. He is clinging to a central partnership of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic despite their vulnerability to injury, for example, because “I just felt at the moment I’ve taken over a new job and it was important that I got a little bit of rhythm”.
Rhythm is something Pellegrini has found even harder to locate, losing at Cardiff and drawing at Stoke while United, as Moyes pointed out, are emerging from the hardest opening run of fixtures among the title contenders. Pellegrini brought up Villarreal’s 2005 Champions League victory over Everton and his Malaga side’s 1-0 win over them in last summer’s pre-season Costa del Sol trophy. “I know [Moyes] had good results against Manchester City when he managed Everton. I had also had a good record against Everton when he was a manager,” he said. Beyond that, it was hard to construct any meaningful discussion with the Chilean. “It is more important to win than not to lose. Of course if you cannot win it is better not to lose, but we will try to win from the beginning...”
Manchester’s new beginning starts here. Two nigh-on indivisible sides are separated now by City’s plus-one superior goal difference. A new era – with no quarter spared, as ever.
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