City, United seize title spotlight

FRENCH PRESS AGENCY - AFP
LONDON
Published 21.09.2017 00:42

A year later than expected, Manchester United boss Mourinho and Manchester City manager Guardiola appear set for a season-long fight for the Premier League title

Having overseen successful close-season spending sprees after lackluster first seasons in charge at Old Trafford and Eastlands, old rivals Manchester United boss Mourinho and Manchester City manager Guardiola have put their teams in pole position among the early pace-setters.

After five matches, Mourinho and Guardiola have led their teams to identical records, four wins, one draw, sixteen goals scored, two conceded, and only alphabetical order is keeping leaders City above second-placed United. There is little love lost between old rivals Mourinho and Guardiola and their close proximity in Manchester should make the title race an explosive affair.

Aware his most successful teams have always been built around a battering ram capable of combining power and poise at the focal point of his attack, Mourinho is reaping the rewards of splashing out 75 million pounds on Everton striker Romelu Lukaku. At Chelsea, it was Didier Drogba and then Diego Costa who fuelled Mourinho's title-winning teams, while at Inter Milan he used Diego Milito to bully defenders into submission. Lukaku, prolific but sometimes lacking desire at Everton, is following in those footsteps, scoring seven goals in seven appearances for United to transform an attack that was often held in check too easily the last term.

"If you play for a big club, then you have to act like a big player and perform, week in, week out," Lukaku said of his United excellence.

When Guardiola splurged 130 million pounds on three fullbacks over the summer, some critics suggested the Spaniard would have been better off using the money to strengthen other areas. But Guardiola was convinced the additions of Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy, and Danilo, from Tottenham, Monaco and Real Madrid respectively, were essential for his purist principles to be successful in England. Guardiola loves to retain possession as his teams build from the back while putting stress on opponents by using over-lapping fullbacks to outnumber them in the final third. Walker, Mendy, and Danilo have allowed City to do exactly that, with Liverpool, Feyenoord and Watford crushed by a combined score of 15-0 in their last three games.

"They are having a big impact. We create spaces in behind and you need players in those positions," Guardiola said.

"Without these signings, it would have been more complicated."

Asked how he felt about Chelsea sanctioning Nemanja Matic's 40-million pound move to United, Blues boss Antonio Conte gave a terse reply, "You should ask the club," left no doubt about his frustration at losing the Serbian midfielder. Conte's loss has been Mourinho's gain as Matic's astute reading of the game and effective passing have provided the foundation for United's more creative talents to thrive. Matic's presence in the midfield holding role had freed up Paul Pogba to take on the more attacking duties that suit his off-the-cuff style. While Pogba will be sidelined with a hamstring injury for several weeks, Mourinho has no doubts United remain in good hands with Matic directing traffic.

Just nine months ago, Sergio Aguero appeared in danger of being the odd man out in Guardiola's forward line following the arrival of Brazilian sensation Gabriel Jesus, but the Argentine has made himself indispensable with a blistering start to the season.

"He's a guy I encourage to play, not just to score goals," Guardiola said.

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