If you’ve just emerged from the Lost City of the Monkey Gods in the Honduran rainforest, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this Saturday’s Premier League game in Manchester, England, is to be contested without any players.
After all, the media have been so mesmerized by the much-anticipated showdown between the two biggest managerial behemoths the world has ever known that you half-expect Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola to come out of the tunnel and step into the Old Trafford Octagon wearing only skintight Speedos, open-fingered gloves and thermoplastic mouth guards.
Pay no attention to the abundance of talent running around the field; according to the pundits’ fevered narratives, this match-up will be decided by which glory hound is still upright after the 90 minutes. So as a selfless act of public service, I’ve decided to make this the one Manchester Derby preview without a single additional mention of these touchline titans in the naively optimistic hope that a half-decent match will break out despite the tediously predictable posturing and preening on the sideline.
Here, then, is your guide to separating the hype from the reality.
What’s at stake?
Hype: No less a wise man than the ex-United midfielder and current TV talking head Paul Scholes has suggested that the game could be a title decider.
Reality: I always liked Scholesy as a player, but I’m guessing that either all of his hilariously ill-timed challenges may have taken a toll on his sense of perspective or his assistant tore off the first five months of his Premier League calendar and he was referring to the second Manchester derby on Feb. 26 at the Etihad. If not, the silky, ginger-haired playmaker should be banned from waxing rhapsodic about anything but his true love: non-league football.
Surely, Scholes couldn’t think that the fourth game of the season would have any significant impact on the championship race? There are 34 games and 102 points still to play for and even if one of the Manchester sides were to “pull a Fiji” and lose 10-0, I have a difficult time seeing a United or City supporter ruefully looking back in May and saying, “I knew we’d lost the league on Sept. 10.”
After all, that kind of early-season pessimism is the exclusive purview of Arsenal fans.
How do the two teams stack up?
Hype: Two undefeated superpowers with little to separate them beyond the 4.3 miles across town. The only question is who finishes first or second in the league.
Reality: Lest you forget, Manuel Pellegrini’s side won their first five league games and still found themselves in the prop wash of Leicester City, 15 points off the top. Neither team has been tested yet in the embryonic phase of the campaign.
United’s wins have come against Bournemouth, Southampton and Hull City, not exactly sides known for their cutting-edge attacking. City have beaten West Ham, Stoke and Sunderland, but with the exception of an impressively fluid first half against the Hammers, they have shown little to strike fear in Premier League opponents, particularly Chelsea, which is also undefeated and looking eminently capable of hijacking the trophy and returning it to London.
Hell, it’s even feasible that Spurs will finish ahead of one of the Manchesters although it’s also mathematically possible for Ann Coulter to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
How much will Sergio Aguero’s absence affect the game?
Hype: City don’t stand a chance without their Argentine dynamo, who is serving a three-match ban for attempting to behead West Ham’s Winston Reid. Or to put it another way: no Aguero, no party. The striker has been particularly lethal against United, netting eight times in his previous Manchester derbies.
Reality: While the absence of Aguero is certainly a blow to City, it’s more of a loss for the spectacle that has been shorn of its most electric performer thanks to his own stupidity. Even without their human death star, City will hardly be bereft of firepower. David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne are creative, attack-minded midfielders who will look to either score themselves or lay balls off for the rejuvenated Raheem Sterling, the crafty Spanish winger Nolito and the quicksilver wunderkind Kelechi Iheanacho.
If only Yaya Toure were around to lend his penalty box menace to the occasion. Oh, wait.
What will Zlatan do?
Hype: The day he signed for United, the giant Swede circled Sept. 10 on his calendar. In a previous football life (Barcelona 2009-10), the club’s then-president Josep Maria Bartomeu expressed surprise that Ibra hadn’t punched his manager who, Zlatan claimed, “bought a Ferrari and drives it like a Fiat.”
The Scandinavian sports car now has a lot more miles on the odometer but would like nothing more than to remove the catalytic converter and leave the balding, tight pants-wearing fellow on the City sideline gagging on the exhaust.
Reality: Other than the occasional glowering stare, Ibra will probably avoid any contact with the man he so politely called “a spineless coward” in his autobiography until the game is over and depending on the result, he’ll either:
a) taunt him as he walks off the field
b) taunt him as he walks off the field
During the contest itself, Zlatan will try to bully both John Stones and whoever lines up next to him in central defense. Stones has looked relatively assured and calm in the back since coming over from Everton, but he hasn’t faced anyone with Ibra’s bludgeoning physicality and it doesn’t figure to be a fun 90 minutes for the most expensive English defender in history.
As if Ibra needed more encouragement to bring the thunder, City will have a Premier League debutant in goal now that England No. 1 Joe Hart has been banished to Serie A purgatory. While the new man Claudio Bravo was Barca’s starting keeper-sweeper for two league titles until Marc-Andre ter Stegen came along and terminated Bravo’s starting spot but it’s never easy coming into a new league and seeing that much Man Bun in front of you.
Expect Ibra, along with Anthony Martial, Wayne Rooney and Marcus Rashford to welcome him to the PL with a few missiles intended to tear his head off, although Rooney’s are increasingly less ballistic now he seems to be playing a different position every game.
If they push Wazza any further back down the field, he’ll end up playing sweeper in front of Hart at Torino.
What kind of match do you anticipate?
Hype: El Clasico. A gripping, high-intensity clash full of unbearable drama between two teams overflowing with big game players who cost billions of dollars.
Reality: El Crapico. An early season game featuring a number of players still learning new systems with the home side sitting back and waiting for a counter or set piece where they will enjoy a massive height advantage (United’s lineup boasts a half dozen six-footers led by the 6-foot-5 Ibra, 6-foot-4 Marouane Fellaini and 6-foot-3 Paul Pogba) over the shortest side in the league.
The visitors will likely dominate possession while going up against arguably the best goalkeeper in the world (David De Gea). It’s the clichéd case of an irresistible force (City) meeting an immovable object (United) and we know how these borefests usually end — in either a goalless draw or if we’re lucky 1-1.
Look, I’d love to be wrong. Nothing would make me happier than a half dozen goals, a controversial penalty, two red cards and a bench-clearing postgame melee, but I’m an Arsenal fan. How often do I get what I want?
David Hirshey is an ESPN FC columnist. He has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and written about it for The New York Times and Deadspin.