When Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho renew acquaintances on Saturday lunchtime at Old Trafford, one of modern football’s great personal rivalries will take another twist.
Back in Spain, where animosity between the pair boiled over, the Catalan and Madrid media have already begun to crank up the tension, filling column inches with ‘greatest hits’ recollections of their fiercest spats.
The new Manchester City and Manchester United managers, for a short time colleagues at Barcelona in the late 1990s, are now regarded as being as far away from friends as any two fellow professionals can be.
The cracks opened when Guardiola was chosen over Mourinho for the Barcelona head coach role in 2008, widened when the Portuguese’s Inter Milan team squeezed through their 2010 Champions League semi-final, and a breach was ripped wide open Mourinho’s first two years as Real Madrid manager.
Things got especially dirty after Guardiola masterminded a 5-0 La Liga victory in their first Clasico meeting in November 2010.
Mourinho and his allies around the Bernabeu used the local media to force through any advantage they could — alleging favouritism from referees, corruption among La Liga and Champions League organisers, internal enemies within their own club, and even a global conspiracy against their side.
Guardiola tried to remain above it all, refusing to get involved in petty local media feuds, and affecting a more dignified attitude in public. But Mourinho succeeded in worming his way under the sensitive Catalan’s skin.
By April 2011’s Champions League semi-final, just after Madrid won a Clasico Copa del Rey final, Pep went on the counter-attack.
“Off the pitch, he has won the entire year, the entire season,” he said. “He can have his personal Champions League off the pitch. Fine. Let him enjoy it, I’ll give him that.
“We’ll try to play football as well as possible. In the press room he’s the chief, the big fucking man and I can’t compete with him. If Barcelona want someone who competes with that, then they should look for another manager.”
Guardiola’s galvanised team went on to lift that year’s Champions League and La Liga trophies.
But Mourinho just upped the ante again — with his disgraceful poke in the eye of blaugrana assistant coach Tito Vilanova during the following August’s Spanish Supercopa.
And their second season together ended with a super aggressive Madrid side wrestling the La Liga title away from Barca.
Mourinho was by now revelling in his bad-boy image, while often suggesting that Pep’s goody-two-shoes image was fake: “There are people more intelligent than me, who try and give a different image to mine, but they’re just the same as I am.”
Eventually worn down by the constant attrition, Guardiola said he needed a break and left the Camp Nou for a year’s sabbatical.
Mourinho’s reaction was to smirk that “I get exhausted when there are no games to play”.
The feeling was he had emerged victorious from their individual battle — even though he has still won just three of 15 clashes between their teams.
Now that they are meeting again, within the same city, the world is braced for the personal animosity to twist up even another level.
Pep’s assistant Domenec Torrent, however, said recently that the two coaching teams could live side by side without a problem.
“Apart from that famous press conference, there was never really a confrontation between Mourinho and Guardiola,” Torrent told Catalan paper El Punt Avui.
“Manchester is small so I guess we’ll see each other in the restaurants.
“One day he can pay, the next Pep or me. I don’t think Pep gets scared.
“For our part, we’re very calm.”
Another surprisingly neutral view came from former Barca midfielder Xavi Hernandez, speaking from Qatar on radio show El Larguero this week. Xavi recalled being impressed by Mourinho when the emerging coach was an assistant to Bobby Robson at the Camp Nou two decades ago, and claimed he could even have played under the Special One had things turned out differently.
“I don’t believe Mourinho’s football would suit my style of play,” he said. “But maybe, why not, you never know? In the end, we’re professionals. He was an extraordinary trainer, taught us a lot. As a head coach he has another style of play, but I can only talk positively of my experiences with Mourinho.”
When it was suggested he would be hoping City win at Old Trafford, Xavi talked of having friends on both sides.
“I hope football is the winner, that’s the truth,” Xavi said.
“Logically, I am fond of Pep, and on a tactical level, there’s nobody better. But also at United there are [Spain internationals Juan] Mata and [David] De Gea. I’ll watch the game and just enjoy it.”
As everyone watches to see how Pep v Jose in Manchester plays out, those on one side at least would prefer the battles remain on the pitch. Whether that hope survives the heat of derby day remains to be seen.
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