Manchester clubs set for epic title race

Jose Mourinho was clear when asked, after Manchester United’s 4-0 win at home to Everton on Sunday, about the need for his players to respond to Manchester City’s emphatic 6-0 victory at Watford 24 hours earlier.

“Today, I didn’t think one single second about Manchester City,” Mourinho said. “I thought about Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool — they lost, well, they didn’t win their match and it was a chance to get two points, like they got last week when we drew Stoke and I just thought about them.”

Perhaps Mourinho was being honest by insisting he was only interested in his players taking advantage of the mistakes of rivals, rather than the success of their Manchester neighbours. But such is the state of play at the top of the Premier League, five games into the season, Mourinho will not be able to ignore City for much longer.

The same goes for Pep Guardiola and his breathtaking array of attacking talent across town at the Etihad.

Whether they like it or not, Mourinho vs. Guardiola — The Sequel, is about to be played out in Manchester; they, and everybody else, are simply going to have to get used to it.

Last season, their first in Manchester with United and City respectively, was supposed to signal the reactivation of the bitter rivalry which defined the three years Mourinho and Guardiola locked horns in Spain with Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Two old friends from their time together at Camp Nou in the late-1990s became fierce rivals, with both men ultimately suffering, on and off the pitch, as a result of the hostility and intensity between each other and their two superpower clubs.

The first year in Manchester was a story of two also-rans in the Premier League, but with City and United now separated only by alphabetical order at the top of the table, it is time to stand back and prepare for fireworks.

Already three points clear of third-placed Chelsea, City and United also boast a vastly-superior goal difference over their rivals and, with no defeats and an identical record of P5 W4 D1 L0 GS16 GA2, are threatening to turn the title race into an all-Manchester affair.

It may also become a repeat of the clash of styles we saw in Spain, with Guardiola’s City possessing the flair and attacking brilliance of Barca; United building the ruthless power and efficiency of Mourinho’s Real.

United and City are not scheduled to meet in the league until Dec. 9, so the two clubs have almost three months to wait until they face the biggest test of their respective title credentials.

Neither man will face questions over his position if he finishes second, but for their reputation, ego and the opportunity to beat the other to the crown, winning the Premier League title this season is an absolute must for both.

City appear to have the strongest squad, with Guardiola spending close to £400m topping up an already impressive pool of players — title winners under Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini — with world-class talent. Mourinho, meanwhile, has been forced to rebuild a squad drained of talent and confidence during the dismal regimes of David Moyes and Louis van Gaal to the tune of around £300m.

But while United may lack in quality when compared to City, they are arguably more durable and attuned to the demands of the Premier League.

Guardiola is building a team to win the Champions League; Mourinho is more interested in hitting the first base of the Premier League title. That is why he has recruited a number of physically imposing players such as Nemanja Matic, Eric Bailly, Romelu Lukaku and Paul Pogba.

Defensively, United are tougher to break down and haven’t conceded a goal at home in any competition since the Europa League semifinal against Celta Vigo in May. But going forward, while they are matching City stride for stride with 16 league goals this term, they lack the fluency and variation of Guardiola’s team.

United can be predictable — they made heavy work of Swansea and Everton before boosting their winning margin in each game with late goal rushes — but City carry threat from every angle. In David Silva, Bernardo Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, Leroy Sane. Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero, they have seven players capable of winning a game with a piece of individual brilliance.

For all of United’s power, they do not have such riches, with question marks still hanging over the likes of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Anthony Martial and Juan Mata, against the very best teams. While there are also concerns over whether Mourinho’s men can cope without the injured Pogba for any length of time.

City have dispelled suggestions they cannot win without Vincent Kompany, by scoring 15 goals without reply in the three games he has missed due to a calf injury, but their defence is still a work in progress and has yet to be fully tested by a quality attack (the 10-men of Liverpool can hardly count in this regard.)

Meanwhile, United have a better, more reliable goalkeeper in David De Gea than any of Guardiola’s options — Claudio Bravo or the newly acquired Ederson — and no team has won a Premier League title without a top-class keeper, so maybe that is where United will have an edge.

It will all come down to Mourinho and Guardiola though, and both know what it takes to win the big prizes. The managers have spent time building the squads to win the Premier League and from this point on, no matter what they say in news conferences, they will have their sights fixed firmly on each other. Espn.com

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