MANCHESTER - After the phony war of their first season in Manchester, the rivalry between Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola will resume for real in Sunday's seismic derby showdown at Old Trafford.
The two managers renewed acquaintances at the beginning of last season after Mourinho took the reins at Manchester United and Guardiola set up shop across town at Manchester City.
Guardiola claimed first blood, leading City to a 2-1 win at Old Trafford in September 2016, but both teams fell by the wayside thereafter, finishing the campaign well adrift of Premier League champions Chelsea.
File: Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.Credit: backpagepix
Fifteen games into the new season, City are eight points clear of United at the head of the table and Sunday's game is being billed as Mourinho's big chance to stick a spoke in Guardiola's wheels.
"We have a big week, with Swansea and Tottenham following the United game," says City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne.
"If we lost two out of three and they win everything, they are there."
The arrival in Manchester of the two pre-eminent managers of the age stoked the embers of a bitter personal rivalry that had crackled with blistering intensity during the two years they spent in opposing camps in Spain.
File: Manchester United's Portuguese manager Jose Mourinho. Credit: AFP
Mourinho's first season at Real Madrid in 2010-11 culminated in an infamously spiky series of matches against Guardiola's Barcelona, who would have the last laugh by claiming a La Liga and Champions League double.
Mourinho nourished the hostility, villainously jabbing his finger in the eye of Guardiola's assistant, the late Tito Vilanova, during a Spanish Super Cup match in 2011.
Madrid finished the 2011-12 season as champions and Guardiola, worn out by the constant sniping, stepped down at Camp Nou and would not resurface at Bayern Munich for another year.
The men's September 2016 reunion promised much, Guardiola's slick City wiping the floor with United in the first half before a Claudio Bravo blunder enabled Zlatan Ibrahimovic to make a game of it in the second.
But by the time of their most recent meeting, at the Etihad Stadium in April, thoughts of an all-Manchester title shootout had vanished.
'Ray of hope'
A grim 0-0 draw left both teams locked in a battle for fourth place as Antonio Conte's Chelsea streaked towards glory.
City eventually finished third as United trailed home in sixth place, but Mourinho could reflect on the season with greater satisfaction after leading his team to a League Cup and Europa League double.
Paul Scholes on the Manchester derby:— Man Utd Channel (@ManUtdChannel) December 5, 2017
"It's a big game but it's not that big. Don't know what all the fuss is about. United will always be the number one club in Manchester. The Hacienda is probably still second and it's been shut 20 years". pic.twitter.com/ghHyfZF2KB
Seven months on City look almost transcendent, their sublime and devastatingly effective possession football reminiscent of Guardiola's great Barcelona team.
Having won their last 13 league games, they can set a new mark for successive wins within an English top-flight campaign if they prevail on Sunday.
Recent results, however, give United reason for optimism.
While City have had to grind out wins, needing late goals to see off Feyenoord, Huddersfield Town, Southampton and West Ham United, Mourinho's counter-attacking United team have hit form.
Up next: the Manchester derby... pic.twitter.com/3UR7FC1TSn— Premier League (@premierleague) December 3, 2017
They followed up impressive wins at Watford and Arsenal with a 2-1 defeat of CSKA Moscow that sent them into the Champions League last 16 and have not lost at home since last year's loss to City -- a run of 40 matches.
"They (United) might, for the first time this season, have just seen a little ray of hope," said former United captain Gary Neville in his Sky Sports podcast.
"There will be better teams (who play City) than Huddersfield, Southampton and West Ham, yet all came close.
"United will be confident going into the game because of what has happened this weekend for City, even though it has been a good week for City too, as they've scored three late winners and have taken maximum points."
Michael Oliver will referee the Manchester Derby pic.twitter.com/jMxkFNZjiY— Schoolboy Defending (@cuchusleftfoot) December 4, 2017
There was a glint of the old malice in Mourinho's eye after United's win over CSKA on Tuesday, when he suggested Guardiola was being untruthful by expressing doubts about the fitness of Spanish playmaker David Silva.
It is a look Guardiola knows all too well and its reappearance indicates the biggest managerial rivalry of recent times is about to erupt again.