April 10, 2015

It only seems like the number of subplots equal the number of all-time meetings as the 172nd edition of the Manchester derby is set for Saturday at Old Trafford when United and City put their unblemished records on the line.

The teams have spent lavishly, both on players and managers. And the touchline will be watched as closely as the action on the pitch as Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola renew acquaintances, and potentially hostilities as a city's bragging rights are at stake as well as a spot at the top of the Premier League standings.

The two have circled each other before, though this time the 4.3 miles separating the two stadia of Manchester makes Saturday a far more intimate affair than the 310 that buffered them between Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Mourinho has always worn the black hat in this rivalry ever since 2008 when "The Special One" was passed over by Barcelona's front office and ownership for Guardiola, the former Catalan defender who was elevated from coaching Barca's "B" squad. That enmity will carry over into this match since Guardiola has been reunited with many of Barcelona's key personnel at Manchester City (3-0-0).

Guardiola has the upper hand in the head-to-head matches between the two that span five teams (Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Chelsea for Mourinho; Barcelona and Bayern Munich for Guardiola), winning seven and drawing six of the 16 all-time matches, highlighted by Barca's clinical 5-0 demolition of Real Madrid in Mourinho's first El Clasico match in 2010.

The antagonism between the two intensified in 2011 over four matches in a 17-day stretch during which Mourinho won the Copa del Rey before Guardiola exacted his revenge by bouncing him from the Champions League in a two-legged semifinal. Their matches in Spain took on good against evil overtones, with Guardiola's flowing Barca offence trying to overcome the cynical punishing play of Real's defence and counterattack.

The two have succeeded at the highest club levels with their differing philosophies, Mourinho climbing every managerial rung scraping to win titles 90 minutes at a time with a pragmatic approach that varies depending on the opposition. Park the bus, hit on the counter, buy the best stars, the Portuguese manager has always succeeded in the short term as his players fully bought into his us-versus-the-world mentality.

Guardiola, on the other hand, believes in the system - his system - honed on his relentlessly inquisitive nature and desire for the aesthetically pleasing football his mentor Johan Cryuff espoused while building Barcelona into a global powerhouse. While it did not result in a Champions League trophy in his three seasons at Bayern Munich, it did get them to the semifinals each year. It's also the foundation of success Manchester City desperately sought in their five-year courtship with him before he finally agreed to take over the blue side of the city last Christmas after his run in the Bundesliga.

Both teams, in addition to Mourninho's former charges at Chelsea, claimed the maximum nine points in three matches before the international break. Manchester City have scored a league-high nine goals, Manchester United (3-0-0) have conceded a league-best one. Thus, this match has all the makings of the irresistible force trying to break down the immovable object.

But the primary person for Manchester City scoring nine goals through three matches will not be available for Guardiola. Sergio Aguero, who has three of those strikes, will serve the first of his retroactive three-match ban for elbowing Winston Reid.

Aguero also has eight goals in nine lifetime matches versus United, leaving a huge hole at the top of the attack, but Guardiola does not lack for options. Teenage starlet Kelechi Iheanacho could get his first league start, while Nolito could also be moved from the wing in a bid to add to his two goals thus far. Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling also are candidates to be shifted into a potential false nine position that would mirror Barcelona's attack under Guardiola.

A third option would be giving playmaker Leroy Sane his first start since his signing from German side Schalke 04 over the summer. Sane has been dealing with a hamstring injury, but has been practising with the team and available for selection.

For United in attack, it will revolve around mercurial striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who scored three goals in the first two wins and has shown little wear of his 34 years since arriving at Old Trafford on a free transfer this summer. But this is also a personal grudge match for Sweden's all-time leading scorer, who has a long history with Guardiola - and none of it is good.

The two had a falling out while at Barcelona, with Ibrahimovic famously labeling Guardiola as a "spineless coward" in his 2015 autobiography "I Am Zlatan" with regards to their personal dealings, or lack thereof if you were to believe Ibrahimovic. In a CNN interview last November, Ibrahimovic went one step further, saying, "As a coach, he was fantastic. As a person, that's something else. He's not a man, there's nothing more to say."

Additionally, the Swede's affinity for Mourinho - the two won the Serie A title and Italian SuperCup with Inter Milan in 2009 - doubles as a fanatical devotion to his manager. And a motivated Ibra is quite the dangerous Ibra.

"He is a winner and I see myself as a winner," Ibrahimovic said in an interview with the BBC about Mourinho. "Wherever he went with different teams, he won. He's direct with everyone. He's not a coach who goes behind you and tells you behind your back. He will tell you if you are not good enough."

Ibrahimovic has also shown a good link-up chemistry with talisman Wayne Rooney, who has a goal and two assists thus far. He has 11 goals in 27 lifetime clashes with City, including four match-winners.

Entering the Old Trafford cauldron for a Manchester derby is a daunting task for anyone, but Manchester City goalkeeper Claudio Bravo will be doing so in his club debut after being signed from Barcelona before the close of the transfer window. Reunited with Guardiola from his days with the Catalan side, the Chile international has replaced the departed Joe Hart, whose ball distribution skills were not conducive to Guardiola's needs.

But the two-time Copa America winner stands only six feet tall between the sticks. With Ibrahimovic a towering figure at 6-foot-5, Belgium international Marouane Fellaini at 6-4, powerfully built midfielder Paul Pogba at 6-3 and Eric Bailly 6-2, corner kicks could resemble a forest as United will undoubtedly look to exploit City - notably central defender John Stones - through the air.

United have won 71 matches and City have claimed 49, with the teams splitting the remaining 51. The Red Devils took four of six points between the teams last season, posting clean sheets in both matches. United won 1-0 at the Etihad in the most recent encounter, with teenager Marcus Rashford scoring just after the quarter-hour.

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