By Daniel Taylor in London/The Observer
Manchester United intend to take a back seat when Pep Guardiola’s contract with Bayern Munich expires at the end of the season, leaving the way open for Manchester City to pursue the former Barcelona coach at the expense of Manuel Pellegrini.
United’s information is that Guardiola will not renew his current deal and wants to work in English football but that will not interest them because of the timing of his availability and their support for Louis van Gaal.
The suspicion at Old Trafford is that Guardiola’s most likely destination will be City, meaning an obvious threat to Pellegrini’s job, although Chelsea could be another viable alternative given their decline this season under José Mourinho.
Ordinarily, United would have Guardiola prominently in their thoughts bearing in mind his success at Bayern and previously at Barcelona, where his team twice beat Sir Alex Ferguson’s sides in Champions League finals.
However, if he were to leave Bayern next summer that would count against United, given it comes a year before Van Gaal’s contract expires. The Dutchman’s deal runs until 2017 and unless something drastically changes, United will take themselves out of the equation if Guardiola is available.
Pellegrini’s position at City is not so watertight and not helped by the fact Saturday’s 2-0 defeat at Stoke was the third time they have been beaten in the last five matches.
Pellegrini signed a contract extension in August to take him to the end of the 2016-17 season but Guardiola’s availability has been in the minds of the chief executive, Ferran Soriano, and the director of football, Txiki Begiristain, for some time.
They worked with Guardiola in their previous roles as executives at Barcelona and consider him an ideal fit for a club that had expected more than Pellegrini has been able to deliver.
Pellegrini’s team have not won an away match in the Premier League since September and he admitted they had played badly against Stoke, giving Leicester City the chance to return to the top of the division courtesy of a 3-0 win at Swansea City.
Riyad Mahrez scored a hat-trick as Claudio Ranieri’s team established a two-point lead ahead of Arsenal, 3-1 winners at home to Sunderland, on a day when Jamie Vardy’s 11-match scoring run came to an end.
“We didn’t play well,” Joe Hart, Manchester City’s goalkeeper, said after two early goals from Marko Arnautovic won the game. Pellegrini blamed fatigue but Hart chose not to follow the same line.
“A few of the lads are feeling it from the games we are playing but that is not an excuse. We need to put in at least a seven-out-of-10 performance every game and we are not doing that. We can’t accept how we played,” he added.
United dropped to fourth position after their latest 0-0 draw, at home to West Ham United, and have now scored seven times in the last 10 matches.
It was their fifth goalless draw in the last nine matches but, despite growing scrutiny of the team’s style, there is strong support for Van Gaal behind the scenes at Old Trafford. The boardroom view is that the criticism has been overplayed and that it is satisfactory for now that Van Gaal has re-established the club as credible title challengers.
Ed Woodward, United’s chief executive, is still hopeful that United will eventually be able to lure one of Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar or Gareth Bale.
However, he is not hugely optimistic about adding any more players in the January transfer window, mindful of the way Southampton blocked their attempts to sign Sadio Mane in the summer. United need cover at left-back but the idea of offering Ashley Cole a short-term deal has been discounted.
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