7th September 2016. By Ryan Baldi.
The first Manchester derby of the season will take place on Saturday afternoon (10 September), and with all the changes that have gone on within the city's two footballing mega powers this summer, it stands to be the most box office encounter ever staged between the two clubs.
Sergio AgÃ¼ero will be missing, due to a retrospective three-game ban levied on the Argentinian striker for an elbow on West Ham United's Winston Reid in Manchester City's last game; and Manchester United will likely be without attacking midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan, after the Armenian picked up a thigh injury on international duty last week.
But despite City's loss of their star marksman, and regardless of whether United's £26 million summer signing from Borussia Dortmund recovers in time to feature, there will be more than enough star power on show at Old Trafford on Saturday, with narratives abound and no shortage of intrigue.
Both sides will be coming into the game riding a wave of momentum, thanks to their respective 100 percent starts to their Premier League campaigns: three wins out of three for City against Sunderland, Stoke City and West Ham, while United racked up their nine points with victories over Bournemouth, Southampton and Hull City.
The Premier League title is never won or lost in September, but this tie already has the feeling of a decisive "six-pointer". The two Manchester clubs are the bookmakers' favourites to be contesting the domestic championship this season, and Saturday marks the first chance for one side to strike a blow against their rival and assert their authority as the city's top dogs.
It will also be the first significant challenge that either has faced so far in this campaign. Each of the aforementioned victories have been hard-fought and well-earned, but neither United or City have yet faced an opponent who will truly test their mettle.
Both clubs made a host of new signings during the recently closed transfer window, and all of the newcomers to have featured, have proven their worth to varying degrees.
City were the busier in terms on the sheer number of personnel acquired this summer, with Ilkay GÃ¼ndo?an, John Stones, Leroy SanÃ©, Ã‘olito, Claudio Bravo, Olexandr Zinchenko, Gabriel Jesus and Marlos Moreno all signed for a total outlay of around £170 million.
GÃ¼ndo?an has yet to feature due to a long-term knee injury and Bravo will likely make his debut at Old Trafford, while Zinchenko and Moreno have been loaned to PSV Eindhoven and Deportivo La CoruÃ±a respectively to gain experience, with Gabriel Jesus not making the switch from Palmeiras to the Etihad until January.
SanÃ© is yet to feature but Stones and Ã‘olito have been impressive in their appearances for the Citizens.
United weren't quite as active in the transfer market, but the players that they brought in have plugged holes in the Red Devils' eleven that have been causing issues for several years.
Eric Bailly, a 22-year-old Ivory Coast international, has been brought in from Villarreal for a fee in the region of £30 million. Although the defender was the least heralded of United's four new recruits, he has immediately settled in to life at Old Trafford and added an assuredness and presence at the back which has been missing since the departures of Rio Ferdinand and Nemaja Vidic.
To date, Mkhitaryan is yet to start a competitive match for United, but a string of impressive cameo performances from the substitutes' bench have earnt him praise, and, had injury not thrown a spanner in the works, he may have been in line to play from the start on Saturday.
Without question, the two most high-profile summer transfers at Old Trafford were the arrivals of Zlatan Ibrahimovi? on a free transfer from Paris Saint Germain, and Paul Pogba's world record-shattering £89 million switch from Juventus.
Despite being 34 years old, Ibrahimovi? is coming off the back of the most productive campaign of his career, as he bagged 50 goals in all competitions last season to help PSG maintain their domestic dominance. And the Swede has hit the ground running at United, netting four goals from his first four appearances while adding the kind of swagger and allure that is reminiscent of Old Trafford hero Eric Cantona.
Pogba's return to United after four years in Turin was the standout story of the summer. The drawn out will-he-won't-he saga culminated in the 23-year-old Frenchman returning to the club he calls his "home". And he has certainly looked at home so far; Pogba's combination of physicality, skill and drive from the centre of the pitch has added a dynamism to United's midfield that has been missing since Roy Keane's peak years in the early 2000s.
But this meeting between United and City is a particularly unique one, because, for perhaps the first time, the focus has shifted from the 22 men out on the pitch, to the two men in suits in the dugout.
The rivalry between JosÃ© Mourinho and Pep Guardiola dates back to their time in charge of Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively although the germination of the mutual disdain can be traced back further.
Guardiola had been in charge of BarÃ§a for two seasons when Mourinho took the reins at the BernabÃ©u in 2010. In that time, the Catalan tactician had transformed his boyhood club into the most dominant and easy-on-the-eye side in Europe. But Mourinho, fresh off the back of winning the Champions League with Internazionale having knocked out Guardiola's Barcelona in the semi-final brought with him the reputation of an absolute winner.
The Portuguese recognised that BarÃ§a were a cut above his side out on the football pitch, and in order to close the gap on them, he resorted to the dark arts to gain every possible iota of an advantage; press-room baiting and touchline shenanigans became the order of the day for Mourinho.
But it was Guardiola who got the better of the opening exchanges, as Barcelona won the first ClÃ¡sico of the 2010-11 season 5-0 at the Camp Nou and claimed their third straight La Liga title at the end of the campaign.
The next season, however, Real Madrid romped to the title with a record points haul of 100, while also setting a new high mark for goals scored in a single La Liga campaign. The bitter rivalry with Mourinho had visibly taken its toll on Guardiola, and he decided to step down from his post at the Camp Nou.
And ever since Mourinho was confirmed as successor to Louis van Gaal at Old Trafford with Guardiola already having been announced as the next City boss mouths have been watering at the prospect of football's most heated tug-of-war resuming in Manchester, with all eyes on the first Premier League meeting on the planet's two premier coaches.
Both men have already shown their effectiveness in their new roles, with Mourinho restoring United's winning mentality and injecting an urgency that had been sucked from their play by van Gaal; while Guardiola has conveyed his footballing philosophy to great effect, and in a remarkably short space of time given the relative complexity of his instructions.
So, on Saturday, a battle for Premier League supremacy will be fought on the Old Trafford pitch, but the war games will commence in the dugout.
Box Office Manchester Derby
7th September 2016. By Ryan Baldi.