A few years ago, after the rulers of super-rich Abu Dhabi had taken over Manchester City and signalled an intention to turn the club into a far greater force – locally, nationally and internationally – I suggested that they should start by buying out the Glazers, disbanding Manchester United and, with a lick of blue paint, converting Old Trafford into City’s training ground.
I was only half-joking. With Financial Fair Play round the corner, it seemed that City did not have the time required to become as independently potent an institution as their neighbours, whose stadium held nearly 30,000 more. United would therefore always be top dogs more often than not, and an irritatingly local reminder of it to boot. The point recurred to me when, after City had become champions in 2011/2, United regained the title in what was to prove Sir Alex Ferguson’s last season.
The failure of the immediate succession, David Moyes being unable to keep United in Europe, offered City another opportunity, which they appeared to take in wresting the title back again, but by now UEFA regulations had hamstrung them and they simply could not spend enough oil money to maintain their dominance. Those in charge – including the former Barcelona executives Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano as well as manager Manuel Pellegrini – must have shuddered as they saw United give a pretty convincing impression of normal service being resumed at Anfield.
Louis van Gaal had claimed that United’s players, mostly inherited from Moyes, had proved they were in tune with his methods when they beat Tottenham 3-0 at Old Trafford the previous weekend. But many of us felt Spurs were a long way below par that day and preferred to wait for further evidence during the tougher test at Anfield. It was duly supplied. And that we should have taken the Dutchman at his word become obvious as United overran Liverpool in the first half, beating the Premier League’s form team with – as Van Gaal put it – ‘’their own weapons’’. By which he meant relentless pressing.
Liverpool were expertly choked and, although they might have made a proper comeback but for one of those rushes of blood that might have been part of the reason why Ferguson once pronounced Steven Gerrard a less than ‘’top, top’’ player, the abiding memory was of United being United again, seizing a day, looking like a team with plenty more to give.
Footballing success’ tendency to follow the money meant that United were always going to get back to where they wanted to be: in the hunt for the big prizes at home and overseas. It was just a question of how many years. We are now talking months. Unless my eyes deceived me – and regular readers will be aware that such a possibility cannot be ruled out – Van Gaal’s United have clicked. I’ll be astonished now if they are not at least in the draw for the qualifying round of next season’s Champions League.
Meanwhile fears that City might drop out of Europe’s top competition have been alleviated by a win over West Bromwich that became routine after Tony Pulis’s side had had a man – albeit the wrong man – sent off. But their neighbours are just going to get noisier and noisier as, in the summer, they splash the cash that FFP will enable Van Gaal to spend while City, who have already paid UEFA one fine, take care not to exceed their own less generous limit. Maybe they should have bought Old Trafford after all. Next time – you can almost hear the gentlemen from Abu Dhabi say – no more Mr Nice Guy.