Some 98 days since he last looked forward to this fixture, Pep Guardiola returns to the Etihad Stadium tonight for a reunion with his close friend Mikel Arteta in circumstances that could barely have been imagined when the game was originally scheduled.
Guardiola’s City against Arteta’s Arsenal is the highlight of the first day back for Premier League football, a game that should have taken place on March 11 only to be postponed when the Gunners' manager tested positive for the COVID-19 virus that was about to bring the country grinding to a halt.
It is an evening that will be full of symbolism, and carry with it all the public relations and marketing clout that television companies and the Premier League can muster.
But, beyond the hype and hysteria, it is also a very different world that the two managers return to, in front of an empty Etihad Stadium.
Arteta has, obviously, conquered the virus and, as Guardiola noted with a smile yesterday, is now “immune” to it.
In contrast, the City manager, and Arteta’s former boss at the Etihad, lost his mother to the disease in April, a tragedy which the Catalan touched upon yesterday but downplayed as one of many such sad stories that have impacted the entire planet in the last three months. Little wonder, then, that Guardiola has a different world view on football’s return, one that extends beyond the desperate rush to safeguard television rights fees and the political desire to see the sport return to offer a welcome distraction to the masses.
Guardiola was given a chance to wax lyrical about the important role football can play in society regaining its normal equilibrium but, to his credit, used the opportunity instead to launch an impassioned five-minute soliloquy about the vital role played by health workers and scientists, both over the past three months and moving forward.
He followed that by paying tribute to Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford and his own forward Raheem Sterling for their own recent outspoken comments about social injustices.
In the case of Rashford, his appeal yesterday saw the government perform a u-turn and extend free school meals for disadvantaged children throughout the summer. “We are human beings and why shouldn’t we say our opinion when you believe you can make a better society, when you are (in the) public,” said Guardiola.
“What Raheem Sterling has done many times, players in our club, Marcus Rashford or whatever, of course they have to use these platforms to make a better society. They don’t need to get more money – fortunately for them they have enough - so they do it to get a better place to live, for their families, for our kids, for the next generations.”
Perspective, therefore, was very much the tone of Guardiola’s media comeback, via a remote “Zoom” press conference, and his major football concern centres around his worries that players are - in his view - certain to pick up injuries after being forced into action following just three weeks of group training.
“They came back really well so we don’t have any complaints,” said Guardiola. “But the way we are right now, I think like other clubs, is that we don’t know (what the future holds).
“You ask me how is the team? I don’t know. Tomorrow we will see the level of the team and from then we will see how we will do better.
“We were worried with these three weeks, not like in Spain or Germany they have five or six. We know it is not enough but it is what is.
“All the people with their businesses and shops they have to adapt and we have to adapt. I don’t know how many minutes will be at a high level.
“I think we are ready to play one game but three days after another and four days after another. Not just for Man City, all the teams.
“You can play a game after three weeks of holidays but I think the players are not fully fully fit. We have to start and finish the season because the damage economically to all the clubs must be as little as possible.”
The Premier League’s decision to allow five substitutes for the remainder of the campaign is a concession to such concerns, albeit one that clubs like Sheffield United have pointed out favours their wealthier rivals.
But while Guardiola confirmed he will be using his maximum number of replacements, the City manager does not believe it will be enough, pointing out that recovery will be so much harder given that social distancing regulations have ruled out the use of techniques such as post-game ice baths.
“We are going to do the best for them, take care of them, try to organise and provide the best facilities for the players to be fit,” said Guardiola.
“But you know the other leagues, the last minutes, how the players suffer when they arrive at the last minute and how difficult it is to recover and play the other game.”
At least Guardiola will have his friend in the opposition dug-out as he navigates such concerns tonight. The pair were even texting yesterday, discussing - according to Guardiola - their choice of wine if social distancing allowed them to meet after the game.
But while his happiness and relief at Arteta’s recovery was obvious, Guardiola was also asked about his feelings at returning to work following the death of his mother Dolors Sala Carrio, aged 82.
“I’m happy to come back to a routine and see you guys. What I live (through) personally is the same as everyone lives,” he said.
There is nothing different. All the people we lost are important to their families. That is why we have the families to be together, to be strong. It was not different to any other person in the world.
When football, inevitably, regains its momentum, City face a crucial finale to a season with events off the field potentially being just as significant as those on it for club and manager.
City’s appeal against a two-year UEFA suspension from European competition has been heard by the Court of Arbitration for Sport and their verdict expected by the start of next month.
City star Kevin De Bruyne was recently quoted as saying such a ban being upheld could have an impact on him remaining at the club - a point his manager concedes.
“I don’t know exactly what he said. This is normal for everyone at the club,” said Guardiola.
“I know UEFA and the club made the hearing 10 days ago so at the end of this month or beginning of July we will know the resolution, the sentence, and next season, if we deserve it on the pitch, we will play in the Champions League next season.”