Four years on from their last clash and arguably both their peaks as managers, Erik ten Hag and Mauricio Pochettino meet again at Old Trafford at different clubs and under very different circumstances.
They were tipped to be the next big things in European football but neither has come close to a Champions League semi-final since that famous May night in 2019.
Few, if any, would have believed the beloved Spurs manager would find himself at Chelsea four summers later looking to prove himself again in England while Erik ten Hag would not have envisaged himself banning journalists from press conferences at the ‘super club’ he was bound for after a stellar stint at Ajax.
It might have been all so different. Pochettino was long tipped for the United job from the moment Sir Alex Ferguson retired, a man whom the Argentinian greatly admired and recently used for all three of his answers when he was asked which Premier League managers he would have liked to have played for.
The feeling was more than reciprocated, with Fergie regularly speaking in glowing terms both publicly and privately while Pochettino managed at Southampton and then Spurs. He was reportedly his pick for the job in 2016 but Jose Mourinho was chosen instead.
While the draw of nostalgia and whatever else saw Ole Gunnar Solskjaer appointed three years later, it did come while Pochettino was on the verge of leading Spurs to their first ever Champions League final, which served as the last hurrah before Daniel Levy’s tight pockets and a stale squad saw him depart just six months later.
A year later, he was touted as Solskjaer’s successor as the Norwegian regularly found himself in peril, but he just about survived before Pochettino went to a former club of his own, Paris Saint-Germain, for a rather joyless reunion.
It could have been Pochettino, and not Ten Hag, who then took the reins in 2022, and it almost certainly would have been had Spurs appointed the Dutchman a year before when he was interviewed for the role.
In a report that feels rather apt given the noise and leaks around United, it was said that Levy and co. felt the then-Ajax coach lacked the requisite charisma for the job and the challenges at the top of the Premier League.
READ: Ranking Man Utd players on how likely they might be to feature among the ‘lost’ 50 per cent
That judgement can be countered by the decision to appoint Nuno Espirito Santo instead. Coincidentally, he was also the losing manager in a fixture labelled ‘El Sackio’ against Solskjaer’s United in October 2021.
Moving back to the present day, both men head into this game at Old Trafford with more questions than answers about their teams, and a sense of uncertainty around near everything at their clubs.
Chelsea have been a basket case since the arrival of Todd Boehly in the summer of 2022, with Pochettino his second permanent appointment and third in total (plus Frank Lampard 2.0), while an entire squad has been near revamped in three transfer windows to the tune of £1billion.
Add on the possibility of a points deduction and even possible relegation due to the self-reported financial misdeeds of former owner Roman Abramovich, and it’s a wonder Pochettino has been able to focus on the task at hand.
Results have been mixed but fans have been mostly on board with the performances and overall plan of their one-time rival manager. The displays of Cole Palmer and Levi Colwill, as well as the undoubted promise of Enzo Fernadez and Moises Caicedo, and the resurgence of Raheem Sterling point to a potential brighter future for the Blues.
United’s issues have been discussed at length and to a point of nausea, but Ten Hag must soon follow his Chelsea counterpart in showing a way forward, with his tactics rightly coming under the spotlight this season after a very optimistic opening campaign.
Boehly may back Pochettino but the thoughts of prospective United minority stakeholder and head of ‘sporting operations’ Jim Ratcliffe on Ten Hag are unknown as yet, with it being entirely plausible that the INEOS chief and his team may choose to start a new era with their own man.
Ratcliffe was also a rival bidder to the American and Clearlake Capital 18 months ago, even if his late, late offer was a suggested signal to the Glazers that he had both the finances and the intent to buy a Premier League big-boy. He was also a Chelsea season ticket holder for a time, even if his long-term allegiances were apparently always to his ‘boyhood club’.
With so many subplots at both clubs, one might forget that this is a clash between 7th and 10th in the Premier League. A repeat of the 2008 Champions League final it is not.
Regardless, if either side is to keep in touch with the sides chasing a place in that competition next season, a win is likely imperative.
It would be a first at Old Trafford for Chelsea since May 2013 (in Fergie’s last game against the Blues) and another step in the right direction for Pochettino. For United and Ten Hag, it could serve as a stay of execution and a brief respite until their inevitable next crisis.
READ: Man Utd, Chelsea combined XI features Onana over Sanchez, no Colwill, and a wildcard up front