Manchester (United Kingdom) (AFP) – Manchester City can become English champions for the fifth time if they beat bitter rivals Manchester United on Saturday, with Pep Guardiola’s claim he was offered Paul Pogba in January adding spice to the occasion.
A City side that has lost just once in the league will seal the title earlier than any side in Premier League history unless Jose Mourinho’s side can throw a spanner in the works at the Etihad Stadium.
Fans braved rain and cold winds to gather at pop-up bars around the ground to watch famous City wins over United in years gone by along with highlights of a record-breaking season shown on a big screen.
City have traditionally lived in the shadow of their local rivals but a third title in seven seasons is further evidence of a decisive turning of the tide in Manchester.
Liverpool’s 3-0 defeat of City in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final on Wednesday took some gloss off their impending coronation, with Guardiola indicating he is prepared to make significant changes against second-placed United to keep their European hopes alive.
“We are going into it to win it,” he said. “We have one eye on Tuesday though.”
Mourinho said he wanted to delay City’s title celebrations but admitted it would not be the “end of the world” if Guardiola’s team won the match, conceding they deserve to be Premier League champions.
– Pogba claims –
Guardiola made the surprising claim on Friday that he was given the chance to sign United’s club-record signing Pogba in January.
“I said no. We don’t have the money to buy Pogba because he is so expensive,” Guardiola told reporters as he attacked the conduct of Pogba’s agent Mino Raiola.
Guardiola, who stressed he thought Pogba was an “incredible player”, also suggested Raiola offered him then-United midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan shortly before Arsenal signed him instead in the deal that took Alexis Sanchez to Old Trafford.
Pogba, who joined United for £89 million ($125 million, 102 million euros) from Juventus in 2016, has endured a wretched season and is not guaranteed to be in the starting line-up on Saturday.
The French midfielder responded to Guardiola’s revelations with a picture on Twitter cupping his hand to his ear, captioned “Say what?”
There is no suggestion that United had given their approval for Pogba to be offered to City and Guardiola’s ire appeared to be aimed solely at Raiola — the two men have feuded since the Catalan coach was managing Barcelona.
– Emirati riches –
Despite Guardiola’s suggestion that City could not stretch to Pogba’s price tag, the investment by their owners from Abu Dhabi, who took over in 2008, has been phenomenal.
The CIES Football Observatory estimates that the current City squad, including Sergio Aguero and contender for Premier League player of the year Kevin De Bruyne, cost 878 million euros to assemble.
Guardiola, also a former manager of German giants Bayern Munich, has himself splashed out nearly 600 million euros in his time in northwest England, but he defended the level of spending.
“I am so, so happy with what we have done this year,” he said. “It’s impossible to do that, to play the way we play, the results we achieved, without top players. It’s impossible. And today the top players cost a lot of money.
“When the people say, ‘You win because you spend 600 million euros’, I don’t know how much money we spent in two years. But it is impossible to do it without money.”
The first of City’s Premier League titles came in 2012 as City edged out United on the final day of the season when Aguero scored in the 94th minute against Queens Park Rangers.
“Nothing will beat that,” said Nathan Rodgers, 25, draped in a sky blue and white City scarf. “But we can enjoy it more today.”
However, the spectre of United spoiling their big day had some home fans on edge.
“We’ve been through too much to gloat just yet,” said Angela Cartwright. “I’ll be much happier later on if we’ve won.”