International breaks are like Hot Wheels strewn across the floor between you and a midnight glass of water: Painful, inconvenient interruptions. We’re without Premier League football for two glacial, plodding weeks, an intermission that tends to dampen the action on the immediate back end. With Saturday’s Manchester derby looming, Nicolás Otamendi — on whom City will lean in defense, what with Vincent Kompany having only just returned to training — was saving Argentina from Venezuela in a World Cup qualifier on a completely different continent and at a completely different altitude just two days ago. United’s Antonio Valencia was also in South America, shaving lengths off of his turbo bar; back in England, Luke Shaw withdrew from the national squad with discomfort in the leg he broke 12 months ago. And Sergio Aguero, the city’s best goalscoring option, is on timeout for violent conduct (and is also injured).
Plainly, both City and United will be dipping past their first choices for this upcoming clash — and each side has ready-made excuses should it come up short. Being only three games into the season, it’s unlikely that Saturday’s match will tell us anything about which club is going to finish ahead of the other in the table, or who’s going to be hoisting the Premier League trophy come May. But despite the unfortunate timing, this is still one of world football’s biggest rivalries, with several layers of sub-rivalries nestled within it. With new, huge acquisitions on both sides, we’re moving past the rivalry’s slump in recent years and entering a spanking new, much-evolved, extremely heightened phase of this crosstown feud, so there are plenty of reasons you should wake up to watch the Manchester derby at [shudders] 4:30 a.m. PST.
Antonio Valencia vs. Raheem Sterling
The sprightly, flashy, too-fast-for-the-safety-of-his-own-ankles winger (Sterling) versus the slightly more lumbering, no-nonsense outside back (Valencia) is always good soccer theater. A flick from the former might leave the latter lunging at air, and subsequently, the latter has to let everyone watching know that he ain’t no punk about his shit. So a slightly-heavier-than-usual challenge might lead to a definitively heavy challenge that would definitely lead to a revenge heavy challenge, and eventually everyone’s yelling and choking each other.
Remember that England-Ecuador World Cup tune-up, when Antonio Valencia tried to snatch the life out of Raheem Sterling? That was during a friendly. Of course, two years have passed and Sterling has since switched clubs, but this kind of hatred doesn’t just, like, subside.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic vs. Pep Guardiola
For United’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, it’s fuck Pep Guardiola, all day and tomorrow.
In his autobiography, I Am Zlatan, Ibrahimovic told a neat little anecdote from his time in Barcelona about how he barked on then-gaffer Guardiola after a Champions League exit at the hands of Inter in 2010:
“You haven’t got any balls.”
“You can go to hell.”
SPINELESS COWARD. Let’s do away with the match altogether and just have the two of them fight a no-holds-barred cage match. Pep can have a broadsword to make things even. Zlatan can have a fork.
Guardiola vs. His Entire Roster
Guardiola dropped starting keeper and club mainstay Joe Hart like so much loose change, he has moved occasionally interested midfielder Yaya Touré to the fringes of the first team, and he’s pushing Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy into inverted-fullback roles, when both have known nothing other than running straight ahead.
After five matches in charge, this all seems to be working, and Guardiola’s proclivity for shuffling players into unfamiliar positions actually made Robert Lewandowski a better player, but Zlatan really did say it best: “As a coach [Guardiola] was fantastic. As a person I’ve no comments about that, that’s something else.”
José Mourinho vs. The Concept of Fun
[Steps on milk crate.]
[Adjusts settings on bullhorn.]
Guardiola vs. Mourinho
The Guardiola-Mourinho epic goes all the way back to when The Special One was an assistant to Louis van Gaal at Barcelona and Guardiola was the veteran midfield compass. The relationship has soured over 20 years, producing a rivalry with Jupiter levels of gravity. They’ve collided 16 times as coaches: Guardiola has won seven, Mourinho has won three, and they’ve drawn six times. Although last year brought on some of their largest professional failures — Chelsea crashing to 16th place, Guardiola leaving Bayern Munich after three successive semifinal Champions League exits (which actually isn’t the end of the world) — the two took jobs in the same city and now seem to be back in lockstep, headed toward probable success.
Three games have yielded the maximum nine points for both managers, but neither has been completely convincing so far; while winning out, United has been uncomfortably utilitarian, and City is still going through Guardiola Growing Pains. All of which makes total sense, because it’s only three games into the season. Still, this match is ripe for fun overreactions.
In the lead-up, Guardiola’s tried to play down the enmity of the situation, saying that should Mourinho invite him for a drink after Saturday, he’ll gladly accept. Which is a non-commitment, and hilarious, because given their history together, Mourinho will probably extend that invitation when pigs fly over the frozen tundras of hell.