MANCHESTER, England — It’s a scenario that Jose Mourinho and Alexis Sanchez, in particular, would have hoped to avoid.
With uncanny timing, Manchester City has the chance to clinch the English Premier League title on Saturday by beating its fierce rival, Manchester United, at Etihad Stadium.
For Mourinho, the United manager, there’s the painful prospect of having to congratulate long-time foe Pep Guardiola on beating him to the biggest prize in English soccer.
For Sanchez, United’s high-profile forward, the indignity of seeing a team he could have joined in January winning the league in front of his own eyes.
“You have to go into it like any other game,” United midfielder Jesse Lingard said.
Except for United, it isn’t.
It would be utter humiliation for United to see City, the noisy neighbor, winning the league on derby day and in record time, too. No team has ever wrapped up the league with more than five games to spare, with United currently holding that record from season 2000-01.
It would highlight the gulf between City and the rest of the league, now led by second-place United.
United’s approach to the game is likely to reflect this. Mourinho went into ultra-defensive mode the last time he took his team to Etihad Stadium around this time last season, and United ground out a 0-0 draw.
It summed up the Manchester teams’ underwhelming league campaigns, with City going on to sneak third place and United finishing sixth behind champion Chelsea.
It would be a major surprise if Mourinho changed his strategy on Saturday, even though United could face a depleted City owing to the match coming in the middle of a two-leg Champions League quarterfinal with Liverpool.
City is 3-0 down from the first leg, and Guardiola has suggested he will rotate to keep players fresh for the return game. His team still has more chances to clinch the league, but only 90 minutes to salvage its Champions League dream.
“We are going into it to win it,” Guardiola said on Friday of the United game. “We have one eye on Tuesday, though.
“Tomorrow, no matter what, we’ll have six more chances . but I’d rather be facing it with a better result than we had.”
Still, City will put out a strong team, with a probable front three of Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva, for example, with Sergio Aguero still an injury doubt. The likes of John Stones and Danilo could start in defense, Ilkay Gundogan in midfield.
“I know what it would mean (to win the league by beating United),” Guardiola has said. “It would be like Barcelona winning the title at (Real) Madrid or Real winning at Barca. It would be special.”
It is, though, a chance for United and Mourinho to strike a psychological blow for next season, even if he succeeds only in delaying City’s coronation.
Sanchez will want to put in a good performance to back up his impressive display in United’s 2-0 win over Swansea last weekend. Until that game he had looked a shadow of his former Arsenal self, his sloppiness in possession raising doubts as to how he would have fared in Guardiola’s pass-happy team.
And for a coach as proud as Mourinho, he would relish briefly putting the brakes on City, especially with Guardiola in the opposition dugout.
Yet it would be a case of winning a battle, but losing the war. United — like the rest of English soccer — has been outclassed by City, which is playing football at a different level this season.
“My motivation is to finish second,” Mourinho said on Friday. “I still have the motivation of finishing top four because mathematically it is not done, so that’s the first objective.
“And because we are in the second position for many, many, many, many months, obviously it is our objective to fight for that and for that we need points.”
For many, it would complete a delicious narrative if Guardiola’s team of entertainers clinches the league against a side with a completely different mentality.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80