Say what?

Pogba has last laugh as he in­spires stun­ning United come­back to de­lay City’s in­evitable coro­na­tion

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - James Ducker NORTH­ERN FOOTBALL COR­RE­SPON­DENT at Eti­had Sta­dium

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

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