Remember how last summer we were eagerly awaiting the big title showdown and all the verbal crossfire between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho in Manchester? Instead, it looks like their Man City and Man United sides will be contesting nothing more glittering than a place in the top four.
City’s 2-1 midweek defeat at Chelsea in what was frankly a lukewarm affair ended any lingering hopes of a late run for the title, leaving them 14 points behind Antonio Conte’s team. That was a day after Mourinho’s men had scraped yet another 1-1 result at Old Trafford against Everton to make it nine home draws this season, the most by United in the league for 36 years.
Such is the mystique and smell of success surrounding the two Manchester managers who they have both played to largely understanding reviews in the English media. There is a feeling that both men need a little more time to produce their magic, which may well be a reasonable assessment. But, of course, Conte has needed no such transition time at Stamford Bridge, where he quickly switched to a well-honed 3-4-3 that has lifted Chelsea to within touching distance of the crown.
That leaves some awkward questions hanging in the air for his rivals.
Has Guardiola’s obsession with the beautiful game been at the expense of a more pragmatic pursuit of points? And why has he been unable to address City’s defensive and goalkeeping woes, keeping no clean sheets in nine games against their top six rivals this season?
Some of their football has been breathtaking, some of it horrible. Expect the summer spending at City to be huge, with a defensive kingpin in the mould of Juventus’s Leonardo Bonucci being an absolute priority. Next season will be the real time to assess whether Guardiola is still a genius, as previously advertised.
As for Mourinho, the statistics suggest he’s doing little better than the much-derided Louis Van Gaal. The 20-game unbeaten Premier League run has included 10 draws, with Old Trafford more like a Theatre of Frustrated Screams than dreams. They have scored fewer home goals than Hull, Swansea or Burnley. Could anyone name United’s best XI at this late point in the season?
It’s true that the self-styled “Special One” has delivered the League Cup, and United could still win the Europa League, too, a triumph that would guarantee a place in next season’s Champions League regardless of where they finish domestically. That may well be United’s best bet now because six of their past nine league games are away from home — three of them are at City, Arsenal and Spurs.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been a big hit, and Eric Bailly and Henrikh Mkhitaryan have had their moments, but who else at United is having a better season this year than last? Perhaps only Ander Herrera fits this bill, although even he has failed to score a single league goal. Wayne Rooney is being phased out (United have missed his usual steady supply of goals), and youngsters like Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard have arguably gone backwards, while Luke Shaw has had his weight, attitude, tactical nous, focus and ambition publicly questioned by the manager.
Perhaps Shaw has not helped himself here, but he played every week at Southampton, was nominated for the PFA Young Player of the Year award and made England’s 2014 World Cup squad. So how and where did it all go wrong in Manchester?
Speculation is rife that Mourinho will move for Antoine Griezmann of Atletico Madrid or even Neymar of Barcelona this summer. Surely United have to be in the Champions League to have a prayer of landing either of those two magnificent players, and there would of course be other suitors.
Meanwhile, even City’s die-hard fans would have to concede that this season has been a disappointment, especially given the brilliance of the opening few weeks. Winning the FA Cup could certainly ease the pain. Likewise, United fans could argue that any outcome to get them back in Europe’s elite competition will render the campaign a success.
But it’s fair to say that Manchester’s Pep vs. Jose blockbuster scheduled for this season has been relegated to a little local argument. The real Premier League battleground is London, where only Spurs can still realistically catch Chelsea for the big prize with eight games remaining.
Ian Darke, who called games for the network during the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, is ESPN’s lead soccer voice in the U.S. Reach him on Twitter @IanDarke.