Guardiola claimed first blood, leading City to a 2-1 win at Old Trafford in September 2016, but both teams fell by the wayside thereafter, finishing the campaign well adrift of Premier League champions Chelsea.
Fifteen games into the new season, City are eight points clear of United at the top of the table and Sunday’s game is being billed as Mourinho’s big chance to stick a spike in Guardiola’s wheels.
“If we lost two out of three and they win everything, they are there.”
The arrival in Manchester of the two pre-eminent managers of the age stoked the embers of a bitter personal rivalry that had crackled with blistering intensity during the two years they spent in opposing camps in Spain.
Mourinho’s first season at Real Madrid in 2010-11 culminated in an infamously spiky series of matches against Guardiola’s Barcelona, who would have the last laugh by claiming a La Liga and Champions League double.
Mourinho nourished the hostility, villainously jabbing his finger in the eye of Guardiola’s assistant, the late Tito Vilanova, during a Spanish Super Cup match in 2011.
Madrid finished the 2011-12 season as champions and Guardiola, worn out by the constant sniping, stepped down at Camp Nou and would not resurface at Bayern Munich for another year.
The men’s September 2016 reunion promised much, Guardiola’s slick City wiping the floor with United in the first half before a Claudio Bravo blunder enabled Zlatan Ibrahimovic to make a game of it in the second.
But by the time of their most recent meeting, at the Etihad Stadium in April, thoughts of an all-Manchester title shootout had vanished.
– ‘Ray of hope’ –
A grim 0-0 draw left both teams locked in a battle for fourth place as Antonio Conte‘s Chelsea streaked towards glory.
City eventually finished third as United trailed home in sixth place, but Mourinho could reflect on the season with greater satisfaction after leading his team to a League Cup and Europa League double.
Seven months on City look almost transcendent, their sublime and devastatingly effective possession football reminiscent of Guardiola’s great Barcelona team.
Having won their last 13 league games, they can set a new mark for successive wins within an English top-flight campaign if they prevail on Sunday.
Recent results, however, give United reason for optimism.
While City have had to grind out wins, needing late goals to see off Feyenoord, Huddersfield Town, Southampton and West Ham United, Mourinho’s counter-attacking United team have hit form.
They followed up impressive wins at Watford and Arsenal with a 2-1 defeat of CSKA Moscow that sent them into the Champions League last 16 and have not lost at home since last year’s loss to City — a run of 40 matches.
“They (United) might, for the first time this season, have just seen a little ray of hope,” said former United captain Gary Neville in his Sky Sports podcast.
“There will be better teams (who play City) than Huddersfield, Southampton and West Ham, yet all came close.
“United will be confident going into the game because of what has happened this weekend for City, even though it has been a good week for City too, as they’ve scored three late winners and have taken maximum points.”
There was a glint of the old malice in Mourinho’s eye after United’s win over CSKA on Tuesday, when he suggested Guardiola was being untruthful by expressing doubts about the fitness of Spanish playmaker David Silva.
It is a look Guardiola knows all too well and its reappearance indicates the biggest managerial rivalry of recent times is about to erupt again.
In this column, we track the best Arab players plying their trade in the Premier League and round up their performances every week.
Mohamed Salah has become an ever-present in this column, starring again over the last week with a brace and an assist over two games as Premier League teams faced off in midweek before going again in the weekend.
Meanwhile, Riyad Mahrez seems to be enjoying an uptick in form under recently appointed Leicester City manager Claude Puel, and this week he delivered a performance that recalled his magical season of 2015-16, when his exploits helped Leicester win the league.
Here’s a look at how these Arab footballers fared this week.
Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp gave Salah some rest for the midweek match against Stoke City, dropping the Egyptian to the bench. No matter, as the Egyptian came on for the last twenty minutes and scored twice, to take his league goal tally to 12 this season. He’s two goals ahead of his nearest challenger, Harry Kane, thanks to that brace.
Salah then had arguably his least threatening game this season on Saturday against Brighton – and he still bagged an assist. Liverpool raced out to a 2-0 lead and then picked Brighton apart on the counter, a role for which Salah is extremely well-suited.
Salah’s pass set up Roberto Firmino‘s second goal of the game, and Liverpool’s third, in a move that started with Simon Mignolet making a point-blank save to prevent Brighton from cutting the deficit to 2-1. It was a quintessential Liverpool goal, and Salah was at the heart of the move.
Rating – 8/10
Claude Puel’s arrival as Leicester City manager seems to be having an impact on Mahrez. The Algerian had been going through a long patch of indifferent form, but Puel is slowly coaxing the best out of him, as the manager is doing out of many of the Foxes’ other attacking players.
Mahrez delivered a trademark goal against Spurs in midweek, cutting in from the right flank and unleashing a thundering strike with his left foot to score Leicester’s second goal, the goal that turned out to be the winner.
His impact against Burnley was less obvious and flashy, but no less important, as he kept the Clarets’ defence honest and worked hard to help his side maintain the lead they took early in the game. Leicester City ended the week in ninth, and Mahrez had a big part to play in his side’s two wins.
Rating – 8/10
It was heartbreak for Sofiane Boufal and his Southampton teammates in midweek, as they so nearly earned a point at the home of Manchester City. Boufal was instrumental in Southampton’s fightback in that game, coming on as a substitute and setting up Oriol Romeu for the Saints’ equaliser at the Etihad Stadium.
Unfortunately, the league leaders scored in injury time to deny Boufal and Southampton what would have been a hard-fought point.
Boufal made enough of an impression in his cameo against City to be restored to the starting lineup against derby rivals Bournemouth on Sunday. Although unable to make the telling impact he did against Pep Guardiola‘s side, the Moroccan was a spark throughout, proving to be a nuisance for the Bournemouth defence in Southampton’s 1-1 draw.
Rating – 6.5/10
With Zlatan Ibrahimovic fit again and closely scrutinising his performances from the substitutes’ bench, Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku is under pressure to rediscover his goal-scoring touch.
Having scored 11 goals in his first 10 games following his £75million switch from Everton, Lukaku has found the net only once in 12 matches since.
Manager Jose Mourinho continues to profess satisfaction with Lukaku’s all-round displays, but the longer the Belgian striker’s difficulties continue, the bigger a point of concern it will become.
“For a striker, it is all about your goals and unfortunately people will always measure him by that, but away from the goals his contribution has to be big,” says former United captain Gary Neville.
“He’s had his struggles. That was always going to happen at some point after his blistering start, but this is a critical stage of the season where he has to deliver.”
Question marks are hovering above Lukaku as United approach a potentially pivotal week in their season.
They host CSKA Moscow in the Champions League on Tuesday and face Premier League pace-setters Manchester City at Old Trafford on Sunday in a derby they must win if they are make up ground in the title race.
Lukaku’s recent displays suggest if United are to get the results they need, their goals are unlikely to come from him.
His frustrations appeared to tell during United’s 1-0 victory over Brighton and Hove Albion when he kicked out at Gaetan Bong in an incident caught on camera but for which he avoided retrospective punishment.
He squandered three presentable chances during United’s 4-2 win at Watford last week, notably dallying for too long when presented with a clear sight of goal by Paul Pogba, enabling the home defence to block.
But he also played an important role at Vicarage Road, setting up a goal for Anthony Martial, and produced a similarly valuable contribution in Saturday’s 3-1 success at Arsenal.
– ‘Demons’ –
Though he did not find the net at the Emirates Stadium, Lukaku’s pressing and direct running helped establish United’s tempo and he was involved in the move that led to Jesse Lingard scoring the visitors’ second goal.
Mourinho joked after the win at Watford that Lukaku needed only to secure a new boot deal, but the United manager has been steadfast in his defence of the former Chelsea striker, who he has described as “untouchable”.
While United’s other attacking players – Martial, Lingard, Marcus Rashford, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata – are regularly rotated, Lukaku has started every single game in the league and Champions League.
“For me, the most important thing is teamwork and he’s second to none in terms of giving everything he has to the team,” Mourinho said.
“If he scores or doesn’t score, that’s not a problem.”
When Ibrahimovic made his return from a nine-month lay-off with a serious knee injury, as a late substitute in last month’s 4-1 win over Newcastle United, Lukaku was farmed out to the right wing to make way.
But working in his favour is the fact his pace and mobility make him a much neater fit for United’s counter-attacking football than the sauntering Ibrahimovic.
Lukaku’s lateral movement across the pitch serves to open up space for the likes of Pogba, Martial and Rashford, all of whom have benefited greatly from the Belgian’s ability to tie up opposition centre-backs.
“I don’t see Zlatan Ibrahimovic as a threat to Lukaku at all, but as a supplement,” Neville wrote in a recent Sky Sports column.
“The only way Ibrahimovic can become number one is if the aura of Zlatan gets to Lukaku.
“Zlatan is confident, but Lukaku is number one, the fans and the manager believe in him and if he does have any demons then he needs to clear them from his mind.”