LONDON – The most toxic, incendiary and darkly entertaining managerial rivalry continues Saturday at Old Trafford when José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola resume hostilities. For the first time in a Manchester derby there will be as much attention on the technical area as the pitch.
Do not be fooled that both managers have, by previous standards, been almost gentlemanly in the buildup to the match. The enmity and animosity remains just below the surface. Forgive and forget? Not a chance.
The “clasicos” between Barcelona and Real Madrid when Mourinho and Guardiola went head-to-head were X-rated clashes that never failed to deliver the good, bad and very ugly. Blue language, red cards, white-hot atmosphere. And unmissable.
It is a rollercoaster of not quite love and borderline hate that has seen the two most talented and successful coaches of their generation involved in the most public of football divorces. It remains a simmering volcano that could erupt at any minute.
The first time Mourinho and Guardiola went up against each other was in a Champions League group stage match in 2009 between Inter Milan and Barcelona which ended 0-0. In the return fixture, Barca ran out 2-0 winners.
Mourinho had remarked after the game that he was ready to play Barcelona again in the tournament and his wish was granted when Inter was drawn against Barca in the semifinals. The Catalans were beaten 3-1 at San Siro and though Inter lost 1-0 at the Nou Camp, Mourinho’s team reached the final where it beat Bayern Munich.
The rivalry took on a whole new meaning the following summer when Mourinho was appointed coach at Real Madrid. Real hired Mourinho because, it thought, he could beat Guardiola and Barcelona. He wasn’t its ideal choice, more a pragmatic selection, but the script was not quite what Real had hoped for.
The first clasico between the pair saw Barça trounce Real 5-0. The last time the pair met was in the 2013 UEFA Super Cup, when Mourinho’s Chelsea faced Guardiola’s Bayern Munich, the Germans (almost inevitably) beating the English on penalties after a 2-2 draw.
Mourinho changed the dynamic of el clasico, where the rivalry was, historically, General Franco vs. Catalonia. The Portuguese made it personal, nasty, vindictive and, it must be said, utterly compelling theater. Insults and innuendos became par for the course mainly from Mourinho to Guardiola. Their 16 meetings saw Guardiola win seven, Mourinho three with six draws, and the Portuguese resorting to a campaign of dirty tricks against Guardiola and Barca. Mourinho claimed referees favored the Catalan team and among his barbs against Guardiola was this, which was a topical if not complimentary comparison: “Without Lionel Messi, who is Pep Guardiola? Take away his little magician and all that’s left is a Spanish Sam Allardyce. He is Señor Big Sam.”
It continued when Guardiola joined Bayern. “Kim Kardashian could win the Bundesliga with Bayern. I’m serious. There is no challenge in Germany. She could play Kanye West in the holding role and achieve similar points to Mr. Guardiola,” Mourinho quipped.
Yet it was not always bad blood. In 1997 Guardiola was Barca’s midfield general while Mourinho was assistant to Sir Bobby Robson and then Louis van Gaal. The pair had a good professional relationship to the extent that when Mourinho was interviewed for the Barca job in 2008 he wanted Guardiola as his No. 2. Instead, Barca promoted Guardiola from the B team and the rest is history.
It was a kick in the teeth for Mourinho, who had coveted the Barca job as he later said he had coveted the job with Manchester United. Their initial closeness meant it hurt Guardiola all the more when things turned as ugly as they did during their two seasons as rival managers in La Liga.
Mourinho decided if he couldn’t join or, initially, beat Pep he would try to belittle him. It was mind games and dirty tricks with no boundaries. Whatever rule book there may have been went out of the window. Their relationship was broken beyond repair.
“I try to learn from Jose on the pitch,” Guardiola has said. “But I prefer to learn as little as possible from him off the pitch.”
It is not only Mourinho who has a photo of Guardiola on his verbal dartboard. In 2009 Barcelona paid £60 million to Inter Milan, where Mourinho was coach, for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but the Swede and Guardiola were fire and water; he lasted one season at the Nou Camp.
“After Mourinho I went to Pep Guardiola, the big brain in football,” said Ibrahimovic. “Guardiola started his philosopher thing. I was barely listening. Why would I? It was advanced b******t about blood, sweat and tears, that kind of stuff. Mourinho is Guardiola’s opposite. If Mourinho brightens up the room, Guardiola pulls down the curtains. My problem at Barcelona was with one man and that was the Philosopher.”
The resumed bloodletting has almost overshadowed what will be the most expensive game in Premier League history, with around £600 million of transfer fees on display.
The media have stoked up the rivalry/feud/battle/war (take your pick) between Mourinho and Guardiola and both clubs’ public relations suits have urged their respective managers not to bite —even nibble. The official line is that it is Manchester United vs. Manchester City, not Mourinho vs. Guardiola. Guardiola has even suggested that one day they might have dinner.
Yeah, right. And at the next table, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Let’s get ready (for the resentment) to rumble. Just don’t expect 5-0.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.