Manchester, March 8: Pep Guardiola has been surprised by the distance between Manchester City and Manchester United since his arrival in the Premier League but suggested Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could return the Old Trafford club to their former glories.
Last weekend's 2-1 EFL Cup final win over Aston Villa at Wembley was Guardiola's sixth major honour at City, with all of those coming after a trophy-less debut at the helm in 2016-17.
United were runners-up to City in the following campaign, albeit 19 points adrift as their neighbours ran up a record 100 points.
That dominant showing gave a lopsided feel to the rivalry between Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, who competed so compellingly when in charge of Barcelona and Real Madrid almost a decade ago.
Mourinho was shown the door by United midway through last season, paving the way for fans' favourite Solskjaer to return to the club as his unlikely successor.
Heading into Sunday's derby at Old Trafford, United lie fifth, 15 points shy of second-placed City and aiming to seal a top-four finish for only the third time since Alex Ferguson called time on his generation-defining tenure in 2013.
"I never expected this position in the previous seasons when I arrived here in England, to have this distance against United in these three or four years," Guardiola said, before warmly praising an opposite number enjoying a run of nine games unbeaten across all competitions.
"The quality of United, no doubts about how big it is, I appreciate the manager a lot. I think he represents United in an exceptional way and I think the players, when you analyse individually and collectively, they are so good.
"Always I believe that the managers and the clubs need time to implant, to build something the manager and the club believe.
"Unfortunately the results sometimes take the decision to break that process. I am not there, I am not part of United, but what I feel is that people believe in Ole and I think he is doing a really good job.
"It is not about the tactics sometimes; it is about [the feel], how the players follow the manager."
9 - Manchester United are currently unbeaten in nine matches in all competitions (W6 D3), the longest current run of any Premier League side, and their best run since February 2019 when they went unbeaten through Ole Gunnar Solskjær's first 11 games in charge. Revitalised. pic.twitter.com/6KyzFRQA5U— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 5, 2020
City boast a superb record at Old Trafford over recent years, winning six and drawing one of their past eight Premier League visits – including three from three under Guardiola.
They also ran out 3-1 winners in the first leg of January's EFL Cup semi-final, although United set nerves jangling as they won the return 1-0 at the Etihad Stadium to follow up an authoritative 2-1 triumph in east Manchester a month earlier.
Long-term United injury victim Marcus Rashford has scored home and away against City this season and boasts four goals in the fixture overall.
Nevertheless, Guardiola takes no comfort from the England forward's absence and knows a United attack recently bolstered by Bruno Fernandes and Odion Ighalo retains plenty of potency.
"I have always said, since the first day I became a manager, that I like to play against a full squad from my opponents," Guardiola said. "I would love to play against [Eden] Hazard at the Bernabeu. I don't like to see Rashford out or [Harry] Kane for Tottenham.
"Hopefully he can recover as quickly as possible. I would have preferred if he had played for them."
Guardiola added: "I don't think, not even for a half second, that he is not there. I think about [Anthony] Martial, [Daniel] James, Fernandes and Ighalo if he plays. And the way [Solskjaer] plays - three or four different types of systems."