In sport, as in cinema and literature, sequels rarely scale the heights of the original – the first rush that made a re-run so desirable.
Pep Guardiola’s tussle with Jose Mourinho when the duo led Barcelona and Real Madrid marked a defining period for football’s modern era. Greatness and controversy, joy and despair. All under a considerable weight of history.
When the Premier League set the stage for renewed hostilities in 2016, the anticipatory buzz around Guardiola’s Manchester City and Mourinho’s Manchester United swelled to a cacophony.
Only this sequel did not go as planned. Perhaps discourteously, given his homeland is steeped in the cinematic tradition, Antonio Conte did not read the script.
The former Juventus and Italy boss masterminded a stunning title charge by Chelsea, who won 30 of 38 top-flight games. City came a distant third and United limped to sixth –albeit with the ample consolation of EFL Cup and Europa League triumphs.
The Manchester clubs retooled and sit level on points at the top of the table after six matches this time. A growing rump of opinion states the Premier League trophy will head to the north west of England in May.
But Chelsea are only three points worse off in third, their brilliant head coach fresh from a statement-making Champions League victory at Atletico Madrid. When City travel to Stamford Bridge on Saturday, Conte has the chance to flip the narrative once again.
“I’m not surprised, it’s normal,” he said when asked about the focus on all things Manchester. “When you have good results, it’s normal the press and people speak about you.”
— PepTeam (@PepTeam) September 29, 2017
Conte talked of his “great respect” for Guardiola, who he labelled as the best coach in the game. The goodwill is mutual.
“I admire many things about what they do – the manager, the way they play,” Guardiola said of Chelsea. “They control all aspects of football.”
But scratch a little deeper and you find a rivalry that could catch light spectacularly this weekend.
Last season’s meetings between the teams ended with an on-field brawl and a tunnel bust-up respectively. Even a Marouane Fellaini headbutt on Sergio Aguero could not make the most recent Manchester derby seem remotely as spicy.
Tactically the lines are not so firmly entrenched as during the Guardiola-Mourinho Clasico era, but competing footballing ideologies are at play.
It was notable on Friday that Guardiola name-checked Chelsea’s deep defending, use of the counter-attack and set-piece strength – hardly virtues that spring to mind when assessing his vividly imagined and attack-minded wrecking machine.
The Catalan’s pre-match tetchiness should primarily be attributed to Benjamin Mendy and Sergio Aguero’s serious injuries before such a key clash, but clock is ticking on a rivalry where he is in the unaccustomed position of coming off second-best.
The Chelsea boss is the only coach to have beaten him home and away in the same league season and Conte’s recent Italian radio interview, where he said, “I will be home before long”, makes the remaining two years of his Stamford Bridge deal Guardiola’s probable timeframe for score settling.
Preparing for Man City… pic.twitter.com/RxXA0akweF
— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) September 29, 2017
Mourinho, on the other hand, talks of a lengthy stay at United and is more sullen than spiky nowadays. It is hard to imagine him provoking Guardiola into a reprisal of the “f****** chief” broadside before their 2011 Champions League semi-final showdown.
Those tempestuous times took a toll on both men, who were notably guarded in their remarks concerning one another last season. The stakes are also different at this stage of their careers.
Mourinho’s spells with Porto, Chelsea and Inter mean his reputation is secure and can be embellished at United, where he took over on the back of David Moyes and Louis van Gaal’s rudderless tenures. Even if he can no longer prove he is “the f****** man”, as in that Guardiola rant, he once was.
At City, Guardiola continues to confront a band of naysayers claiming he cannot do it without Lionel Messi or a ready-built team – even if the latter benefit did not do Carlo Ancelotti an undue amount of good at Bayern Munich. Away from his Juventus comfort zone, Conte had to answer similar doubts this time last year.
An all-Manchester title battle would be intoxicating but not a venture into unchartered territory as it was between 2011 and 2013 – City claiming glory in 2012 through that Aguero goal, before United reclaimed their crown and gave Alex Ferguson a glorious farewell.
Nothing feels rehashed or reheated about Conte versus Guardiola. As two of football’s sharpest minds and most frenzied touchline operators contort themselves into a blur of maniacal hand gestures in west London on Saturday, they will be conducting the latest chapter of a confrontation that can define their times in England.
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