As Mauricio Pochettino prepares his Tottenham team for this weekend’s vital clash against Manchester City, his thoughts may well drift back to 2009. Hazard fails in Costa interview. Installed as Espanyol’s new manager and tasked with dragging them from the relegation mire, the former defender had quite the first test: Barcelona away and Pep Guardiola in the opposite dugout. Guardiola’s men were in dazzling form, an irrepressible winning machine. And yet Pochettino’s underdogs turned up, in their great rivals’ back yard, and won 2-1. A high press stunned the home side, so used were they to having to break teams down. Former Barca player Ivan De La Pena scored twice – the second a superb chipped finish – and each time wheeled away with a look of shock and sheer, unadulterated delight.
Barca would go on to win the title and Espanyol would survive, the players rejuvenated by the trust placed in them by their new boss. This Sunday, Guardiola and Pochettino will renew their friendly rivalry but this time as the two best minds the Premier League has to offer. We have already seen Guardiola vs Jose Mourinho, of course, but this fixture – between the only two remaining unbeaten sides in the Premier League – marks the first clash between two tacticians who, along with Jurgen Klopp, have nurtured the division's most entertaining teams. Mourinho may puff himself up as the self-anointed 'Special One' but his grip on the crown has slipped following last season’s disastrous Chelsea campaign and he has done little to reclaim his seat on the throne so far at Manchester United. In fact, even with his eye-wateringly expensive acquisitions, his new side are currently playing football not drastically better than the turgid stuff they produced under the much-maligned Louis van Gaal.
And so we come to Pep vs Poch in what will surely become the 'hipster's derby' as well, perhaps, as the league's most prominent one. Two deeply contrasting styles make for an intriguing fixture; Pochettino’s teams sweat blood for the cause, hassling and harrying, while they also boast a scalpel-like cutting edge once the ball is in their possession. Guardiola’s teams have a chilling swagger when they hit their stride, keeping the ball for fun, slicing through teams, his midfielders weaving beautiful patterns en route to goal. Arsenal often attempt to score the perfect goal and rarely manage it but City pull it off with a fearsome ease. Thus we cannot expect a repeat of last season’s surprisingly one-sided clash in north London, which occurred almost a year ago to the day. Spurs’ 4-1 win came about as a result of the team’s organised chaos; Pochettino set his team out to press relentlessly and City were subsequently stuck in the mud. Kevin De Bruyne opened the scoring but there was no way back once Toby Alderweireld’s bullet header gave Spurs the lead.
Perhaps a fairer blueprint comes from Spurs’ victory at the Etihad Stadium, a win that gave the club’s fans genuine belief that a first-ever Premier League title was within reach. Christian Eriksen’s superb second-half strike sent the fans into raptures, and Pochettino’s reaction on the sidelines – a scream of joy and relief – spoke volumes as to the importance of the fixture. Yet this City is a different beast, a winning machine motivated by Guardiola after a dead rubber of a final season under Manuel Pellegrini. Domestically they have played six games and won all of them, scoring 18 goals and conceding just five. Victories have come over the likes of Stoke City, Bournemouth and Swansea City but also at Old Trafford, as Guardiola pulled down Mourinho’s tactical trousers in front of the watching world. Even Guardiola has admitted, though, that the match with Spurs is a true chance to measure how far they have come. "We’ve got the Champions League and after we go to one of the best teams in the last two years at White Hart Lane," he said before their 3-3 draw with Celtic. "We'll see how our level is there."
This is the first true acid test of Guardiola’s reign and is a match in which Pochettino will come full circle. The Argentine, after all, has proven there is a way past seemingly unbeatable Guardiola sides before. With a sense of déjà vu in the air, the Catalan will be hoping that he will not again fall into the trap laid by Pochettino. During his time in La Liga, no manager took more points from the City manager than the 44-year-old did. If he repeats the trick once again against arguably the best manager in world football, he will truly cement himself as the next great managerial talent working today.