LIAM MACKEY: Even the Manchester derby is still about the players

If you’re still struggling to get your head around exactly what that €13 billion Apple windfall means in real terms, there’s a much simpler and more meaningful solution than trying to work out all that banal stuff about how many homes and hospitals you could build with it.

No, much better to think of it like this: it’s about, ooh, 13 times more than the Premier League spent in the summer transfer window.

Yup, that big.

A large chunk of that one billion will be on show in Old Trafford today but it tells you something about the powerful hold of the cult of the celebrity manager that, in the build-up to the first Manchester derby of the season, some of the most famous and expensive players in world football have been pretty much consigned to the role of supporting cast, second on the bill to a renewal of the toxic rivalry between Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola.

In the red corner, the smouldering pragmatist looking to provide redemptive evidence his calamitous last season at Chelsea was a serial winner’s blip. And, in the blue corner, the perfectionist purist out to prove he doesn’t need to inherit a team of European masters in order to reign supreme again. In this heavyweight personality clash, the pre-fight hype can make it seem as if the players are there mainly to mop the brows of their managers and whisper sweet encouragement in their ears.

Those intangible honours – bragging rights – are always bigged up in the context of a derby but, even if today’s managerial protagonists somehow stay on what passes for best behaviour in the white-hot atmosphere, you just know that, never mind the three points on offer, victory in this one will probably mean even more to the men in the technical areas than it will to the life-long faithful. Not that Jose and Pep will be able to mock each other as they cross paths on the assembly line on Monday morning, of course, but even so, this time, as every other time, it’s personal.

The irony, of course, is that for all they can do in the realm of mind games, man-management and preparing to counter each other tactically, there is a strict limit to the influence either Mourinho or Guardiola will have on proceedings once the action kicks off. Sure, they can alter the team’s shape and maximise their substitutions and they can even put a rocket up everyone at the break if that’s what they think is required. But, when it comes to the crunch, neither will be able to deliver the killer pass, inviting cross, saving tackle or clinical finish which could ultimately decide the game.

Football is still, in the end, a game for the players, in which context it was interesting this week to canvass the views of former Blue, Richard Dunne, the retired Irish international whose time at City ended just as the club’s commercial revolution was getting into full swing. “It was a different era really,” he admitted. “Man United had bigger games than Man City when I was there. For us it was a huge match. Then in the last few years they started to have a bit more respect for us and it started to have a bigger edge.

“Old Trafford is a very hard place to play. Especially when you are playing for Man City, and Man United are the best team in the world, as they were at the time. We only beat them there once, 2-1, on the 50th anniversary of Munich - we had to wear all the retro kits. We did the double over them that season and it was the first time we did it for donkey’s years. Now we are doing it on a regular basis. It’s good, it’s exciting.”

Both clubs go into today’s game with three wins out of three but, on the back of that phoney war, Dunne doesn’t think either side can have grounds for over-confidence.

“It’s a huge match and I think they are both going to be a bit nervous because they both know they are going to be tested,” he said. “I think there are weaknesses in both teams, as good as they are.

“For Man City, they haven’t got any backup for (the suspended) Aguero. United, I don’t know what to make of them at the moment.

They seem to be very physically strong, they can steamroll teams. Rooney and Ibrahimovic, they don’t have the pace but they have the guile”

In Dunne’s view, there is one obvious solution to United’s lack of pace: “They need to get Rashford in. Martial has not been very good. Rashford looks brilliant. So often there are young kids who make a name for themselves and then they are gone again. But the way he has improved again this season is brilliant. He got a hat-trick (for the England Under-21s) the other night, as well. He’ll be a danger.

“Man City are all about pressing, squeezing, keeping the ball and when they lose it, getting it back. That’s great but if you lose the ball and someone chips it over your midfielders, then that’s seven or eight players out of the game straight away. If Man United would be brave enough to keep forwards up and keep them spread, then the Man City defence could be dragged all over.

“In my head, that’s what I imagine could happen. But I’m sure Guardiola will have loads of different ideas. If the ball moves quickly from the back, they can’t do their press. They have that six-second rule - when they lose the ball they have six seconds to get it back. He had that at Barcelona and that’s what he is trying to instil at Man City. But if the ball gets kicked from one end of the pitch to the other, there are loads of them out of the game.”

Whatever the outcome, Dunne reckons we will see the winners of this season’s Premier League at Old Trafford today.

“I would say it could even come down to these results between the two teams because I think they’ll beat the majority,” he says.

“Chelsea will be strong but I don’t know whether over the year they’ll do it. I think these two teams are the top two. It will probably be within four or five points at the end of the season, so the results of these two games are going to be important.”

Seconds out, then – if that’s really possible on the day that’s in it.


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