Sunday’s Manchester derby will cast United in a role they are unaccustomed to - the nation’s favourite.
Though only temporarily, of course. Half of any TV audience invariably tune-in hoping for a chance to delight in a defeat for the Reds, but this weekend even a majority of the ABU’s (Anyone but United) will be praying that Pep Guardiola’s high-flying City side are finally brought back down to earth.
City equalled Chelsea’s (2015-16) and Arsenal’s (2001-02) feat of 13 consecutive Premier League wins when David Silva hit an acrobatic winner against West Ham United on Sunday and they can set a new record if they beat United at Old Trafford.
For a club like United, who had grown accustomed to writing records of their own during Sir Alex Ferguson’s glory years, it is the last club they want writing new Premier League history – particularly at the ‘Theatre of Dreams’.
This weekend's Manchester derby - it's a clash of the titans. An Irresistible Force versus the Immovable Object.
There is no doubt that Guardiola has taken City to the next level this season. His side make up six of the top 10 performers in the Goal Pressure Index, presented by Sure - three times as many from United (2).
For second-placed United, it feels like a match that could define their season. If Mourinho’s side cannot rise to the occasion and work out what 13 others couldn’t in the last few months, then the race for the Premier League title could be over before we’ve even reached the halfway stage.
The Premier League anticipated a huge battle between Guardiola and Mourinho last season as they both rocked up in Manchester, renewing their often bitter La Liga rivalry when their Barcelona and Real Madrid clashes captivated Spain.
It turned out to be a bit of a damp squib, with neither able to forge a meaningful title bid last term. But Mourinho did win the opening contest, taking two trophies.
The EFL Cup and the Europa League were a downgrade on what United fans expected as they looked to the Special One to sprinkle his stardust on Old Trafford, to wipe out the trauma and chaos of the post-Fergie era under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal.
Nevertheless, trophies were added to the cabinet – and that was more than Guardiola could muster down the road. Serial winner Pep was under pressure going into this campaign, trailing to his old Portuguese adversary. But Guardiola has got his teeth into the English game and his squad have bought into his passing-and-possession doctrine and he is in a position now to turn the tables on Mourinho.
City appear unstoppable but Huddersfield, Southampton and West Ham of late have all forced them to reveal their grit, patience and ability to overcome setbacks. It hasn’t been winning dirty because their football is still polished, but City have had to grind out victories to keep their eight-point title lead intact.
Guardiola, it seems, has stolen the blueprint from Ferguson’s United days. And that is a major worry for the Reds. Fergie’s entertainers didn’t always win in a canter and had spells during their 13 Premier league title successes when they had to roll their sleeves up and nick three points, combining panache with patience.
Late wins became known as ‘Fergie Time’ – and now Guardiola has perfected it. Ferguson used to say it wasn’t coincidence United won so many matches late-on, that it was down to belief, spirit and the ability to wear teams down.
City’s probing style tires opponents out and, just when you think you’ve survived, when you are dead on your feet, they kill you off. City have now won 10 points from losing positions in the Premier League this season – more than any other side.
David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne, the Pressure Index top two, are Guardiola’s locksmiths, but City do have a weakness and Guardiola alluded to it after their 2-1 win against West Ham.
The runaway PL leaders struggle defending set pieces. The Blues boss admits they are not a big side and warned that United’s taller squad, ‘Jose’s Giants’, will exploit that if they give away cheap dead-balls at Old Trafford.
Mourinho won’t have needed his rival to have worked that out. Few know how to suss out Achilles heels better than the Reds manager. He’s added physicality, size and brute force in Nemanja Matic and Romelu Lukaku, and has squeezed more out of Marouane Fellaini’s no-nonsense, forceful style.
He also paid a then-world record £89 million in the summer of 2016 to add the mighty presence of Paul Pogba to his midfield. The Frenchman’s 12-match absence in the autumn with a hamstring injury saw United’s ‘immovable object’ label tarnished, as they fell to defeats at Huddersfield and Chelsea.
They have allowed City to create a cushion they look unlikely to relinquish. United are effectively the only hope left, even at this pre-Christmas stage of the Premier League marathon. Pogba has hit four goals and assisted six more in his last nine PL appearances, but will miss the derby after getting himself sent off at Arsenal last Saturday when Mourinho defied the pundits at the Emirates.
If his infamous bus was parked in North London, then he left the handbrake off as the runaway Reds tore the Gunners apart in an opening blitz that effectively won the game in the early stages. And Pogba was key to the victory before his late exit.
Without the Frenchman’s engine, Guardiola’s midfield could make hay. The Reds do not have another Pogba to unsettle and damage the heart of Guardiola’s side. It is a pivotal blow to United. And, after David De Gea’s remarkable display against Arsenal, we’re left wondering whether there has ever been a match at Old Trafford match where United will need a world-class goalkeeper as much as they may do this weekend.
The last time Guardiola and Mourinho went head-to-head outside of England was in 2012, in La Liga. Mourinho’s Real Madrid won 2-1 in Camp Nou after Barcelona dominated possession 72 to 28 percent. You can likely expect similar stats at Old Trafford on Sunday.
Mourinho went on to win the Spanish title a month later and Guardiola left Barca. If Mourinho’s United cannot halt City’s winning run then it looks certain it will be Guardiola winning the crown this time. City arrive at Old Trafford as favourites but, with the rest of the Premier League not yet ready to give up the title, United will be the nation’s favourite.