It’s a once-bitter rivalry that has never really gotten going in the Premier League.
Pep Guardiola vs. Jose Mourinho. The active managers with the most trophy-filled resumes in world soccer. The coaches with very different philosophies but an identical obsession with winning. The men whose verbal jousting got personal and explosive when they went head-to-head in Spain as the leaders of Barcelona and Real Madrid a decade ago.
So why the apparent thawing of their relationship since colliding in England?
“I don’t know,” Guardiola said, laughing to himself. “Maybe we’re older. More experienced.”
There was a huge buzz when they both landed in the same city in 2016, renewing their rivalry in Manchester at clubs only a short distance apart. Guardiola was announced as City manager just a few weeks before Mourinho took over at United and they even lived near each other in the center of the city.
Fans got excited. Obviously the media did, too. Questions poured in at news conferences, hoping that Guardiola and Mourinho would bite.
They never really did, both coaches staying civil in front of the cameras and in the technical areas.
“I’m sorry for you,” a smiling Guardiola told reporters Friday. “I know you were looking for it. I’m sorry.”
When Mourinho was fired by United in December 2018, it ended a 2½-year period in which the Manchester clubs met in six derby matches. Guardiola won three of them and Mourinho two, one of which came at the Etihad to delay City’s title celebrations toward the end of the 2017-18 season.
The rivalry is not done, though.
It resumes Sunday, albeit without as much scrutiny, as Mourinho faces Guardiola and Manchester City for the first time since taking over at Tottenham in February.
The narrative has moved on. It is less about the possibility of fireworks between them on the touchline in what will be their 23rd meeting as rival coaches, and more about where they stand in the current hierarchy of coaches.
Neither is manager of the best team in the country — that honor goes to Jurgen Klopp at runaway Premier League leader Liverpool — and they are no longer competing on a comparable footing, with Tottenham enduring a tough season from before Mourinho took over and way below City’s level at the moment.
Can Guardiola tweak his current team — or does he have the desire and energy to construct a new one — to challenge Liverpool next season? Is Mourinho on the slide now, with critics saying his tactics and approach might be outdated?
For his part, Guardiola feels managers like Mourinho who have stayed around the top of the sport for such a long period deserve respect.
“I know we are being judged on the last game and for the ideas we have or something we do,” Guardiola said, “but, as a professional, I try to judge my colleagues, even the football players, not for one season but when they are 10 or 15 years in one team, playing 50 games every season. That gives me more value.
“For managers, up and downs, everyone has them. You have good periods, bad periods, change the teams, rebuild something. In that case, Jose was there 15 or 20 years, being there all the time. That has to be respected, from my point of view. I think it’s the most difficult thing, staying for a long time, being there, being there, being there all the time.”
Guardiola was asked if, looking back 10 years, he could ever have imagined himself showing such respect for a rival with whom he had running battles.
“On my side, always I had incredible respect for what he has done for football and his career,” said Guardiola, who was at Barcelona with Mourinho before the turn of the century — when he was a player and Mourinho was part of the backroom staff under Bobby Robson and Louis van Gaal.
“Sometimes situations happen. It’s part of our job. That’s all.”
Mourinho is still trying to put his imprint on the Tottenham team, two months after replacing Mauricio Pochettino.
It’s the first time he has taken over a team midway through a season — Guardiola has never faced that particular challenge — and it has been a bumpy ride so far at Spurs, who are sixth in the Premier League and still in the Champions League as it heads into the knockout stage next month.
Guardiola said he has only seen one full game played by Tottenham since Mourinho joined. The rest has just been highlights.
He knows what to expect, though, from the man who was once his biggest managerial foe and now can best be described as a respected adversary.
“Of course I have had to learn what he does with his teams,” Guardiola said. “Of course, against big, big, big managers, you have to pay more attention and know what you have to do.
“But there are many. In the football world, there’s not just Jose and myself. There are many.”
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