Pogba has last laugh as he inspires stunning United comeback to delay City’s inevitable coronation
There was more than a whiff of a vulture picking over a carcass about Pep Guardiola’s admission on the eve of last night’s derby that Manchester City had been offered Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in January by the pair’s agent, Mino Raiola. This was no slip of the tongue.
Guardiola may have casually divulged the information but it was as calculated and cunning as anything from Jose Mourinho’s past playbook.
Manchester United have been a distant second to City this season and here was Guardiola taunting his fallen prey. Talk about kicking someone when they were down. Raiola got both barrels but United were collateral damage, the wider target and, as if Mourinho has not had enough problems internally with his club record £89million buy, thanks to
Guardiola it is now out in the open that Pogba’s agent has been actively exploring potential Old Trafford exit routes. It was an extraordinary, below the belt revelation and it demanded a response from Mourinho and United.
The battle may have been lost but, with Guardiola rubbing United noses in it, it was imperative that United staged some sort of demonstration in the wider war, not only to delay City’s inevitable coronation for at least another week and salvage some pride in the process, but to reinforce the message that, as bruising as the past 10 months have been, they are not going away, that they will fight another day and come back stronger.
For 45 minutes, the opposite appeared to be unfolding, with United supporters staring at a humiliation greater than even their most cynical member could have envisaged and a cowed, insipid Pogba shaping up as the scapegoat. United, once again, were resolutely second best to City, as they had been for much of the campaign and fortunate not to be five down, let alone two, at the interval.
And then something extraordinary happened. United remembered who they were, they rediscovered their mettle and bite and spearheading this awakening was none other than Pogba who, from looking moody, sullen and disinterested, suddenly remembered he was an £89 million footballer and became his team’s beating heart, the role always envisaged for him but one he has struggled to embrace. It was a metamorphosis as astonishing as it was unexpected but it must also serve as a springboard to better things next season, a statement of intent, a reminder that, over 90 minutes at least, they can not only keep pace with their rivals but beat them. Whether they can do so over a season is the great unknown and the challenge facing Mourinho.
But if a glance at the table is not enough to convince Mourinho that it time to dispense with the awkward pretence that he is somehow more dignified these days and start fighting dirty again as he bids to ensure the power shift is temporary, Guardiola’s remarks about Pogba should be. In his
book, Fear and Loathing In La Liga: Barcelona vs Real Madrid, the journalist and author, Sid Lowe, wrote that Mourinho pitched up at Real in 2010 and quickly decided that “the best way to defeat Barcelona was to get under their skin, and under the skin of Guardiola in particular, to wage a war of attrition, all weapons allowed”.
Real, Mourinho resolved, were not good enough to take Barcelona on in a fair fight and needed to rattle every cage possible in a bid to level the playing field. There are times when Mourinho has been tempted to go in two-footed on Guardiola and City but pulled out at the last minute. Yes, his criticism of Guardiola’s decision to wear a yellow ribbon in support of jailed pro-independence Catalan politicians before the previous derby riled the City manager and may have had something to do with the bombshell his rival dropped on Friday. But that sort of deliberate provocation of City and Guardiola has been largely missing in his two seasons as United manager – this one especially – when the argument for indulging the dark arts in the search for any advantage is even stronger than it was in Spain.
Asked in the wake of his “heritage” rant this month following United’s Champions League defeat by Sevilla whether the challenge of hauling back City was bigger than the one he faced with Real, Mourinho said: “Probably similar, but Real had the nucleus of players of a really high level.”
The underlying message was that he does not have the same calibre of player at United which, surely, is all the more reason for employing every strategy, however cynical, at his disposal to try to throw City, and Guardiola, off balance going forward. Does the football have to be better? Of course it does but this, surely, was the starting point, the moment United and Mourinho signalled they are unprepared to sit back and watch City build on this season’s dominance.
Perhaps Guardiola’s remarks about Pogba will serve as a cue for Mourinho to reacquaint himself with that persistently devilish side but, both before and after the game, the Portuguese was reluctant to surrender the moral high ground, opting instead for a series of relatively benign responses to Guardiola’s verbal hand grenade. Perhaps he had felt United had done all their talking on the pitch and, on the day, they certainly did that. But, in the longer term, they may need more, to exploit every weapon at their disposal. Mourinho has got under Guardiola’s skin before. It is time he did it again.
There are times when Mourinho has been tempted to go in two-footed on Guardiola
King of the Etihad: Paul Pogba taunts the Manchester City fans after scoring the second of his two goals as Manchester United prevented their arch-rivals from claiming the Premier League title