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Are Manchester United in danger of being left behind by Pep Guardiola and City?
Last Updated: 20/03/16 4:21pm
Ahead of Sunday's derby, live on Sky Sports 1 HD, we examine how the balance of power has shifted in Manchester - and what Pep Guardiola's arrival could mean for the rivalry…
Pep Guardiola to City may have been football's worst kept secret but the confirmation of his move to the Etihad Stadium in February still sent reverberations around the red half of Manchester.
As City were tying up a three-year contract for the most successful coach on the planet and a man famed for his thrilling attacking football, United were in the midst of a haphazard plod through the season which has left their under-pressure manager Louis van Gaal looking increasingly forlorn. It was an alarming contrast.
Fast forward six weeks and the Guardiola announcement appears to have done little to aid City's title challenge under the outgoing Manuel Pellegrini, but on Super Sunday they have the opportunity to open up a seven-point gap on their neighbours, and after United's Europa League exit against Liverpool, the spotlight is firmly fixed on Old Trafford once again.
Just twenty-four hours prior to United and Liverpool going head to head on Thursday night, City's next manager had emerged from Bayern Munich's Champions League last-16 tie against Juventus with his reputation in tact thanks to an extraordinary salvage job in Bavaria.
The hosts were in deep trouble at 2-0 down, but a four-goal response sent Guardiola into the Champions League quarter-finals for his seventh consecutive season as a manager. Not once has he fallen short of the last four. Nor has he ever finished a domestic season outside of the top two.
It is statistics such as those that make Guardiola's imminent move to City appear all the more galling for United. Here is a coach capable of laying the foundations for years of Premier League dominance. How could Ed Woodward and the Old Trafford hierarchy have allowed their bitter rivals to swoop ahead of them?
For their part, United insist there was no attempt to hijack the move, but if Van Gaal is relieved of his duties in the summer, widespread reports suggest Jose Mourinho will be the man they turn to. The former Chelsea manager has plenty of experience of going toe-to-toe with Guardiola, after all, and enjoyed sweet victories over the Catalan with both Inter Milan and Real Madrid.
Mourinho and Man Utd
A timeline of events involving Jose Mourinho, Louis van Gaal and Manchester United.
Regardless of who is in charge of United next season, however, they are already playing a daunting game of catch-up with their neighbours. Few could have envisaged just how far the Reds would fall after Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement in 2013, but City finished 22 points clear of them in 2013/14, and they were nine clear in 2014/15.
The gap is down to four points ahead of Sunday's derby, but that is hardly due to progress at Old Trafford. And while City's title challenge has faltered, they are still in Champions League contention and have already lifted the Capital One Cup. United's only hope of silverware, meanwhile, hinges on an awkward FA Cup quarter-final replay away to West Ham.
With Guardiola in charge and the promise of unlimited backing in the transfer market, it is difficult to envisage anything over than considerable improvement at City next year. Defence and central midfield are areas in need of improvement, but the level of surgery required is nothing compared to United's.
Injuries have exposed shortcomings in practically every area of Van Gaal's squad, with the manager forced to thrust untested youngsters into the fray due to a glaring lack of depth and quality in the senior ranks.
United can take heart from the emergence of teenagers such as Marcus Rashford and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, but repeated mistakes in the transfer market have taken a heavy toll over the last 18 months, with the brilliant form of Angel di Maria and Javier Hernandez at PSG and Bayer Leverkusen ramming the point home.
And while Guardiola's stay in Manchester may not extend beyond the three years of his contract, City's huge investment in a new youth academy and state-of-the-art training facilities shows long-term preparation the like of which cannot be seen on the other side of the city - where a confused transfer policy points to muddled thinking.
"City's long-term planning and strategy is clear, so is their succession planning," said Sky Sports News HQ's James Cooper in February. "In truth that's borne out by the building of the City Football Academy and the Manchester Institute of Health and Performance."
How City persuaded Pep
Sky Sports News HQ's James Cooper explains how Man City lured Pep Guardiola to the Etihad.
So while United grapple with decisions over their immediate future, City are already grooming Guardiola's successor. "The New York City FC post is something of a job interview for Patrick Vieira," added Cooper. "He is being seriously looked at as the next manager of the club after Guardiola's three years."
With Guardiola on his way to City and given their own current malaise, it's easy to see why United might turn to Mourinho. The 53-year-old is one of few coaches with a CV to rival the Bayern boss', and his trophy haul includes three Premier League crowns, two Champions Leagues and - most significantly - a La Liga title won at the expense of his old foe.
But what of the long-term? Mourinho talked of creating a dynasty at Chelsea, however his managerial stints tend to unravel spectacularly - and his return to Stamford Bridge was no exception. Transforming United back into major contenders would be his toughest challenge yet, and history highlights the risks involved.
The outcome of Sunday's derby could have a significant impact on how United finish the season and it could also influence their decision-making over the coming months. Whatever the result, though, it is impossible to escape the reality that only one of the Manchester sides is primed for long-term success. United are in danger of being left behind.
Watch the Manchester derby live on Sky Sports 1 HD from 3.30pm on Sunday.