Not for the first time, Pep Guardiola stands between Jose Mourinho and achieving his ultimate objective.
In Spain, it was the Catalan and his great Barcelona side that cast a rather large shadow over Mourinho during his time in Madrid. The dynamic was replicated for two-and-a-half seasons in Manchester, with United under Mourinho well short of the standard set by Guardiola’s City.
Now, there is some geographical distance between the two men, but their fates are intertwined once again. Mourinho was hired by Tottenham in the hope he would bring some silverware to a club that hasn’t lifted a trophy for 12 years and Guardiola will put up one final barrier to his adversary delivering on this, with City and the North London side set to face off in April’s Carabao Cup final.
It will be another episode in a managerial rivalry that came to define an era of the European game. Guardiola and Mourinho tend to stay out of each other’s way these days, but they won’t be able to keep their distance on the Wembley touchline. The final has the potential to produce fireworks regardless of whether or not there are fans in the stands.
City have spent the last few weeks building and look to be finding form at the right time. Guardiola has given his side a sound defensive basis by installing Ruben Dias and John Stones as his first-choice centre back pairing. Joao Cancelo has grown into the modern, dynamic full back City have needed for years while Kevin de Bruyne, Phil Foden and Ilkay Gundogan are the creative core around which Guardiola’s team revolves.
Guardiola has long used the Carabao Cup to set the tone for the final phase of the season that comes after the competition’s final, traditionally in February. This year’s final has been pushed back to April in the hope some supporters will be permitted to attend by then, but nonetheless, this run has helped Manchester City gather momentum.
The danger City will pose will certainly be greater than the one Tottenham faced from Brentford in their semi final tie. Three of the four teams Spurs have played on their run to the Carabao Cup final were Sky Bet EFL sides (Leyton Orient, Stoke City and Brentford). Mourinho will need to find a way to lift his players’ game to take on City.
Of course, he’s already done this once before this season and the 2-0 win over Manchester City in November provides Mourinho with a template to follow. Guardiola’s side claimed 66% of possession that night, but played into Tottenham’s hands, with Mourinho’s men making the most of the space left in behind on the rapid counter attack.
Harry Kane and Son Heung-min were in exceptional form against City back in November and Spurs will need similar performance levels from their two best players to get the better of Guardiola’s team for a second time this season. They will need to take their opportunities when they come, otherwise the Manchester City machine will surely flatten them.
Make no mistake, the machine is indeed rolling. There has been a lot of talk about a potential Manchester United title challenge this season, but it’s City understated, yet building, charge that poses the biggest threat to Liverpool. Guardiola’s process has been a clear and well executed one to this point. That process could see City grow even stronger by April.
Spurs have gone through their own process with Mourinho in charge and the Carabao Cup final could mark the end point of this. The Portuguese’s brief was to turn Tottenham into winners and April presents them with a chance to win. But like so many times before, it’s Guardiola who will embody the difference between victory and defeat for Mourinho.