Neil Humphreys: Manchester City face war on two red fronts
Guardiola's men risk being left behind by Liverpool and Man United
Only a year separates Leroy Sane and Bruno Fernandes, but their English Premier League careers are heading in very different directions.
This week has felt like a sliding doors moment for both footballers and their respective clubs.
Manchester City agreed to sell Sane to Bayern Munich for 45 million euros (S$70.5m) plus add-ons, while Manchester United agreed that Fernandes is their jewel in a future crown.
Fernandes scored twice against Brighton and Hove Albion to help United win 3-0 and extend their unbeaten run to 15 games yesterday morning (Singapore time). Sane scored reportedly twice the salary in his Bayern deal.
Here are two men and two Manchester clubs at a crossroads.
Tomorrow morning, City's deposed champions will host Liverpool with a guard of honour, an acknowledgement of the Reds' title-winning brilliance.
Pep Guardiola presumably expects the transition of power to be temporary, but he could be forgiven for the suspicion that men in red surround him.
Liverpool are the usurpers now, but the Red Devils are also on the rise.
Like the Schlieffen Plan of World War I, Guardiola needs a strategy to fight different opponents on two fronts, with an obvious drawback.
He failed to defeat the single threat of Liverpool this season. He must take on Juergen Klopp's champions and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's challengers with a serious handicap.
Unless the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturns Uefa's sanctions on City on July 13, Guardiola's men are out of next season's Champions League, so a carrot will be removed from any future transfer negotiations.
Guardiola couldn't keep Sane. How can he be expected to entice others?
The 24-year-old forward was offered a substantial pay rise, but Sane was adamant that he wanted a return to his native Germany.
Maybe City had the financial will, but there just wasn't a way. Without Champions League football, the prospect of playing second fiddle to the rampant Reds as those devilish neighbours start making more noise may not appeal.
An elite, non-British footballer is rarely going to be predisposed to a move to Manchester, unless Old Trafford's theatre is looking a bit dreamy again.
And it is. The signs are unequivocal.
Solskjaer's lack of top-level coaching experience will remain a question mark until he wins a trophy of note, but fans are allowing themselves to be cautiously optimistic.
The Red Devils remain a centre-back and a defensive midfielder away from disrupting Europe's top table, but their attack is more than capable of challenging the domestic duopoly next season.
ASSET AND CURSE
And that's a real problem for Guardiola. The Spaniard instinctively knows that his club's greatest asset - and curse - is the man himself.
City plus Guardiola plus the Champions League makes a move to the Etihad doable for those rarefied artists blessed with wealthy suitors.
And yet, United plus a rookie manager, but minus the Champions League still equals the most popular sporting franchise on the planet - or it did until Liverpool ended their 30-year league title drought.
The United-Liverpool debate is an exercise in futility when it comes to global popularity.
The only pertinent point to remember is that City are not included in the debate. They barely count.
City's outstanding weapon of note, their major selling point to an interested party, is the enigmatic Spaniard. But Guardiola is weakened without the Champions League and wary of a dominant Liverpool and a resurgent United.
In Spain and Germany, he only ever faced one heavyweight opponent. He always managed the other one. Now he's up against two with an uncertain squad.
On the same day that Sane's departure was confirmed, Mohamed Salah insisted that he never wanted to leave Liverpool, providing a fair reflection of where both clubs are.
The Reds' three forwards are all 28, just one example of Klopp's impeccable squad management.
At City, Sergio Aguero recently turned 32. His designated successor, the 23-year-old Gabriel Jesus, would only warm the bench at Liverpool.
David Silva will leave at the end of the season and Fernandinho has one year left in his 35-year-old legs.
In the recent defeat at Chelsea, Fernandinho was forced into a deeper position as Guardiola's biggest failing revealed itself.
Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones have not convinced alongside Aymeric Laporte. Poor defensive recruitment remains the thorn in Guardiola's side.
That recruitment job will hardly get any easier, particularly if both Liverpool and United can offer something that City cannot: Champions League football.
Guardiola must hope that his club's appeal against the Uefa ban is successful, otherwise his good name and reputation will be the only bargaining chips he has left.
They may not be enough.
Guardiola is big. But he'll never be bigger than Liverpool or Manchester United.