Difficult to see Van Gaal lasting another season, writes Dileep Premachandran
"Sometimes you have a noisy neighbour," said Sir Alex Ferguson. "You cannot do anything about that. They will always be noisy. You just have to get on with your life, put your television on and turn it up a bit louder."
Those words were uttered in September 2009, after a 4-3 victory over Manchester City. Michael Owen’s goal deep into stoppage time left Mark Hughes – a hero of Ferguson’s first title-winning side – incensed, and United behind only Chelsea in the table. That was where they would finish that season, with City coming in three places and 18 points behind.
Since Ferguson’s retirement in May 2013, the shift in the balance of Mancunian footballing power has been stark. City have finished first and second, while United have trailed in seventh and fourth. The points difference over the two seasons has been a whopping 31.
Testing Times: Louis van Gaal
United, though, have the history. But the value of that is now being called into question after an off-field event that really puts into perspective the changing perception of the two teams. When Pep Guardiola announced before the Bundesliga’s winter break that he would be leaving Bayern Munich at the end of the season, he pretty much ensured that every big club with a managerial vacancy would be on his trail.
Looking for the right men
In England alone, United and Chelsea will be looking for managers in the summer. Louis van Gaal’s contract at United runs till 2017, but so sterile have the displays been under him that it’s difficult to see how he’ll last till the end of the season, leave alone longer. Chelsea have Guus Hiddink doing the caretaker’s role after Jose Mourinho’s sacking. A new man will be in place before June.
United have 20 titles to their name. Chelsea, despite chants from other fans about their lack of history, have won four since 2004-05. For City, the triumphs in 2011-12 and 2013-14 were their first since the halcyon years in the 1960s.
Guardiola is not just any manager either. At Barcelona, he created perhaps the most devastating club. At Bayern, he hasn’t managed to replicate that feat, but it’ll be a brave man that writes off the Bavarians when the competition’s knockout stages begin this month. The Bundesliga crown, a third successive one, is more or less assured, with an eight-point gap to Borussia Dortmund in second place. Guardiola had always expressed a desire to work in England, but his choice of club speaks volumes about football’s changing landscape. Mourinho, once the manager most in demand, is desperate for the United job. United, though the Van Gaal project hasn’t worked, don’t share his keenness, but may well end up with him now that Guardiola — undoubtedly their first choice — is off limits.
Diego, joker in the pack
The joker in the pack is Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid. Since taking over at the Vicente Calderon, where he spent five seasons as a player, Simeone has won La Liga, the Copa del Rey and the Europa League. In 2014, they were 90 seconds away from defeating Real Madrid, their mighty neighbours, in the final of the Champions League.
Under Simeone, Atletico have shed the inferiority complex and gone toe-to-toe with the big boys. This season, they lead Real by a point, though the loss to Barcelona last weekend has severely dented any title hopes. But what he has done with a fraction of the resources available to Spain’s big two is little short of a football miracle.
Guardiola has never had to work with a modest hand. At Barcelona, he inherited a superb squad, albeit one that had let standards slip after the Champions League success in 2006. At Bayern, he took over a side that had just won the treble. City could well run into Bayern in the latter stages of the Champions League this season and, as long as they can keep Sergio Aguero fit, must still be favourites to lift the epl title.
Those that have worked with Guardiola have often spoken of his genius. But in choosing City over United, he has chosen stability over challenge. Reviving a fallen giant like United would have made for a more romantic story. Now, with the world’s most wanted manager at the helm, the noisy neighbours are likely to utterly eclipse the old grandees.
Dileep Premachandran is Wisden India’s editor-in-chief