MANCHESTER — With two largely unexcitable, foreign managers currently in office, the preamble to a Manchester derby is perhaps not what it once was. In truth, there was not a great deal of noise from either of the neighbours on Friday.
Thank heavens, then, for the football. This time round, that remains terribly difficult to call as Manuel Pellegrini’s City head to United on today knowing that Louis van Gaal’s side will overtake them in the Barclays Premier League with a win.
Last season at Old Trafford, City were embarrassed in a 4-2 defeat. Returning to the scene of the crime this weekend, the City manager could only stress that there will be no sanctuary sought in pragmatism or caution. The league leaders — scorers of 11 goals in their last two domestic games — will be heading to Stretford to win.
Asked if style remains fundamental to his team’s football, Pellegrini said: “Absolutely essential, without doubt.
“To prepare to win the title, this team must play the right way or it’s not a successful season.
“For me it’s the best way to do it. It’s best for the club, the fans, the league. It doesn’t mean we don’t have to defend well, because we do. But in three seasons we’ve been the best attacking team in the Premier League in terms of scoring goals.”
Before conspiracy theorists translate Pellegrini’s words into a swipe at rival and arch-realist Jose Mourinho or indeed United’s rather more conservative Van Gaal, it is important to understand that this was not the context.
Nevertheless, it is hard to escape the fact that today’s game will represent a contrast of style to some degree.
United have made satisfactory progress under Van Gaal but a significant percentage of the club’s support that remember the best days of Sir Alex Ferguson’s time at Old Trafford remain unconvinced about the way their team approach games these days.
Victory over City would still be a victory over City, though. United midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin said on Friday that a win would represent a “statement” by this team and he has a point, even if Van Gaal was less keen to add to that narrative.
“I’m happy that we are more balanced in our squad,” was his reply when asked if he was happy to have closed the gap on City a little during his time in Manchester.
Pellegrini must win the league this season if his position is not to be scrutinised once again while Van Gaal himself knows that a trophy of some description would be handy.
Neither appears to feel the lustre of the derby as much as they may, though, and maybe we should not expect this. Both have experienced them before in other countries and neither is likely to take to his bed in despair as Ferguson did after a 5-1 hiding at Maine Road in 1989 — whatever happens this weekend.
‘If you win against a team of the same city, for some people it can be better,” said Pellegrini.
“For me, the most important thing is to demonstrate that you are the best team.”
In terms of today’s teams, Van Gaal perhaps has fewer decisions to make than Pellegrini. This is a United team that largely picks itself and once again Van Gaal will hope for more signs of big game aptitude from young Anthony Martial and a much-needed upturn in form from his captain Wayne Rooney.