One of the most vicious bouts in history is how you might characterise the fiery, line-crossing rivalry between Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola.
Since both arrived in the Premier League, we’ve waited vainly for the spark to flare up into a full-on fire. With another late-season Manchester derby on the horizon, our start-of-term hope that this would be a title decider has been granted, but just not in the way we had anticipated.
This is not a game to decide the destination of the title. This is a game to decide just how quickly the race is run. It is to decide whether or not City become earliest winners of the title in history.
And it will decide whether Manchester United, the team who kept the pace with the league leaders the longest, and whom everyone expected to be contenders right until the end, will be humiliated in vicious fashion at the hands of their rivals: not just felled at the Etihad Stadium, but beaten down so early as to be embarrassing.
So far this season, it has been framed not as City’s to win but as theirs to lose. Guardiola’s side have been so dominant that there hasn’t been anything to ‘win’, as winning requires competition.
Perhaps the final Manchester derby of the season will stand in for the bout. It’s as good a story as any other: City can land the final blow on the Premier League as a whole by beating their closest challenger, though knocking them out of the title race is not going to be the outcome.
And yet, even if it doesn’t play out like that it will still come to fruition. Even if City don’t beat United it will only prolong the inevitable; the agony. If Mourinho’s side are to become the first team this Premier League season to come to the Etihad Stadium and emerge victorious – or indeed the first to avoid defeat since Everton in August – they will still be the last man standing against an irresistible City side this season.
There’s a certain elegance in City’s position. For Pep Guardiola, a man whose entire body of work as a player and as a manager spans some of the most elegant teams in the history of the game, that makes a lot of sense.
And for the slight, technical footwork of this Manchester City side to face up to a United team built around physical and domineering talents is reminiscent of the Rumble in the Jungle, when the bobbing and weaving Muhammad Ali came back to boxing at the age of 32 to take on the “baddest man alive” George Foreman.
The question at the start of this Premier League season was whether City’s technical players could take a whole Premier League season’s worth of a battering and still win the league, or whether United’s muscularity would win the day.
That question was answered as emphatically by City as it was by Ali in 1974.
But final blow landed by The Greatest is perhaps the most fascinating few moments in the history of sport. As Foreman is beaten, and you can see him stumbling and staggering in a vain attempt to stay on his feel, Ali knows he doesn’t need to throw another punch. He doesn’t even try, but instead stands back, looking on as his opponent finally hits the ground. The final punch wasn’t necessary: it was superfluous and inelegant. And so Ali left it unthrown.
Ahead of Saturday’s Manchester derby, City are in need of a comeback of their own. A 3-0 defeat at Anfield finally has an all-conquering team on the ropes. You get the feeling that Guardiola’s team might well rest players for the derby in favour of keeping his ammunition in hand for Tuesday night’s comeback fight.
If that’s the case, this derby could well be the punch Guardiola doesn’t give Mourinho.
City will win the league regardless of whether or not they beat United this weekend. That they will fall is not in question. All that’s left to be seen is how long it takes before they hit the canvas.