It's the first Manchester derby of the season on Saturday, and to a Premier League-hungry world that's just spent two weeks crawling through the parched desert of the international break, this fixture sits on the horizon like a glittering oasis. City vs. United! Mourinho vs. Guardiola! And a chance to get a sense as to which of these clubs might end the season ahead of the other, and in doing so give themselves a pretty decent chance at the title! What if ... what if this oasis is in fact the ancient, mythical city of Narrative, in which can be found the fabled Sixth Thing We Learned?
It probably isn't. In fact, it's possible that this game isn't going to be much use at all.
Let's look at the players first. The best striker on either side, Sergio Aguero, is both suspended and injured, which we can only imagine is a simultaneously convenient and frustrating state of affairs. Beyond him, they have two other likely starters, Ilkay Gundogan and Vincent Kompany, who are back in training but have so far played no football this season. And Kompany's deputy, Nicolas Otamendi, has been on international duty in South America, which always does pleasant things to energy levels. New goalkeeper Claudio Bravo didn't join up with Chile, but Old Trafford would be quite the debut.
Over on the red side of the city, Antonio Valencia has also been out in South America, while Luke Shaw left England's camp early as a precautionary measure after feeling pain in his recently healed leg. Should Shaw have a problem, then his likely replacements are either Marcos Rojo, another who's been travelling the world, or Daley Blind, which would probably mean a return for Chris Smalling in the centre of defence, and he's barely played any football this campaign. Further forward, Henrikh Mkhitaryan is great, is great fun, and is doubtful after picking up a thigh injury while playing for Armenia.
This isn't intended to evoke any sympathy for these poor, put-upon superclubs with their bloated squads and their vast academies full of carefully harvested and expensively nurtured talent. Hoping that both sides lose remains very much the morally correct position. But it does mean that we're likely to see two teams either undercooked or second-string in a few key positions, which means we're not going to be seeing these sides as their narrative-generating overlords envision them.
There's another reason for that as well: it's September, and only just. Pep Guardiola has had five competitive games in charge of Manchester City; José Mourinho's had charge of United for three and a half, to be rounded up or down depending on your feelings about the Charity Shield. Yes, those games have been wins, and yes, some of them have been impressive, but this is still hopelessly early to be checking in on the processes of guardiolisation and devangaalisation, much less to be smashing them into one another and trying to work out which is the bestestest of the bestest of the best, ever.
In short, for the purposes of properly investigating the balance of power in City-vs.-United/Mourinho-vs.-Guardiola/red-vs.-blue, much less predicting whether either side will win the league, this game has turned up a week too close to the international break and about a month too early into the season. That doesn't make the overarching story any less compelling: this is still the rivalry between the heir to the kingdom of Cruyff and his former friend-turned-exiled apostate, all folded into a cross-city derby over 100 years old, and then juiced to the eyeballs with all the great footballers that cold, hard, performance-enhancing cash can bring. But it does perhaps rob the result, whatever that might end up being, of some of its heft. Barring some complete humiliation or total breakdown, it'll be relatively easy to explain a loss away for either party.
But! Hope is not lost, and you may not need other plans. We'll still get to watch Paul Pogba face off against David Silva, Zlatan Ibrahimovic attempt to discomfit John Stones, and the battle of the titans that is Wayne Rooney vs. Fernandinho. Somebody will either get sent off or will deserve to have been sent off, and it's almost certain that there will be handshake-related fume. And if you're not watching the Premier League for the handshake-related fume, why are you even here?
Furthermore, at least one of the managers involved (the Evil one, obviously) would, in the fullness of his powers and with his perfect squad, love nothing more than to shut the whole game down. So while an improvised defence might only encourage bus parking, it might also lead to bad bus parking, which would in turn necessitate abandoning the bus altogether lest it catch fire. Where plans fall apart, chaos takes over, and where chaos takes over, football can be extremely entertaining indeed.
Are we saying that a jetlagged Marcos Rojo can't park a bus? We are. Are we saying that the sight of a jetlagged Marcos Rojo attempting to park a bus, crashing into a lamppost, and then having to hope his friends Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba can help him douse the flames will be fun? Yes. And are we concluding that the best way to check whether a city in the desert is real is to let a jetlagged Marcos Rojo drive a bus into it? Well, duh.