Pep Guardiola had it right. “The team that fails less will go to the Champions League,” he said prior to this Manchester derby of imperfections. Misses, mistakes, mis-placed passes, misfortune – as both managers would have it – and even mis-kicks.
Manchester was supposed to be the capital of the Premier League this campaign but has turned into a quiet suburb and England’s two wealthiest clubs, with the two biggest names in world football in charge have been left fighting for scraps; the prize of fourth place and entry into the Champions League although United also hold the League Cup.
This was a Thursday night derby about avoiding Thursday night football and dropping into the booby prize of the Europa League which is unthinkable for Guardiola and a junior competition that Jose Mourinho has no desire to re-visit after this trying season.
For now Manchester United remain in it, thankfully for them, and with a semi-final against Celta Vigo and then, hopefully, a final against either Ajax or Lyon it stands as an easier negotiation for them than the top four in the Premier League.
For Manchester City this was their last chance in a season of promise and expectation that has fizzled out without any prizes apart from a battle for the bare minimum – being in the Champions League – ahead of a summer of change, upheaval and introspection. A summer of must do better.
It meant both Guardiola and Mourinho were relatively subdued even if the pressure was such that even the ball felt it, having to be replaced inside the opening quarter of an encounter where no quarter was given and space was at a premium even if the error count rose as, also, referee Martin Atkinson decided he would allow challenges to go unpunished.
This is the time of the season when these two rivals – Guardiola and Mourinho – would normally expect to be contesting the final stages of the Champions League rather than fretting about whether they will simply gain entry into it. So it was a chastening fixture and, as Guardiola said so neatly, about being the team that failed less.
Failing less pointed to those imperfections and they were there with chances spurned – Sergio Aguero striking the post when a forward of his repute would have expected to score – and Claudio Bravo creating an opportunity for United by inexplicably patting a cross into the centre of his own goal before recovering with a save.