Manchester United were given an almighty scare but did just enough to hold off Manchester City’s spirited, ten-man fight-back to secure a 3-2 victory and progression to the fourth round of the FA Cup.
A Wayne Rooney header gave the visitors an early lead and, moments later, the hosts' task was made infinitely harder as Vincent Kompany saw red for a challenge on Nani.
Danny Welbeck then added to City's woes with a fine volley before Rooney added his second and United's third, nodding in from close range after seeing his spot kick initially saved.
However, Roberto Mancini’s side roared back with ten men after the break and goals from Aleksandar Kolarov and Sergio Aguero brought them agonisingly close to an incredible comeback.
Mancini chose to rest first-choice goalkeeper Joe Hart, with 24-year-old Romanian Costel Pantilimon handed a place in the starting 11. City’s two leading strikers, Mario Balotelli and Edin Dzeko, missed out through injury, forcing Aguero to operate in a more advanced forward role. Yaya Toure, along with his brother Kolo, were absent after joining the Ivory Coast squad for the Africa Cup of Nations and Gareth Barry was suspended meaning James Milner partnered Nigel de Jong in the centre of midfield.
United were boosted by the shock return from retirement of midfielder Paul Scholes, who took his place on the bench. Anders Lindegaard was preferred to David De Gea in goal, while Chris Smalling returned to the defence. Welbeck partnered Rooney in attack, with Javier Hernandez left on the bench and Dimitar Berbatov out of the squad entirely.
City started the match at great speed, forcing Sir Alex Ferguson’s side to weather an early storm in the Manchester rain, but as that pressure began to subside the hosts were hit by a stunning double blow.
Rooney has had a disappointing few weeks to say the least but he looked ominously sharp as he sprung a United counter-attack with the help of Ryan Giggs. Antonio Valencia, so often the Englishman’s partner in crime since his return from injury this season, found some space on the right and fired in a first-time cross that Rooney superbly converted from ten yards with his head.
If that was a setback for Mancini’s team, their hopes took a more devastating blow minutes later. Referee Chris Foy’s decision to show Kompany a red card for a challenge on Nani will ignite debate and divide opinions; the Belgian defender appeared to win the ball but flew into his tackle with two feet in a reckless enough manner to immediately draw the protestations of Rooney and the subsequent early bath.
To their credit, City responded strongly with ten men. Aguero was frequently at the centre of their attacking play and curled an effort at goal shortly after Kompany’s dismissal that Lindegaard did well to palm around his post.
They were undoubtedly held back by the numerical disadvantage, however, with Milner withdrawn to right-back and Micah Richards moved into the centre of defence. United, looking comfortable when their opponents did get on the ball, gradually began to assert more control.
Their lead was doubled when Evra, attacking Milner aggressively down the United left-hand side, was able to send a low cross into the City box after Nani’s run inside left him with room to manoeuvre. When that ball hit a leg and flew into the air, Welbeck was on hand to react quickest with a tremendous volley on the turn that sailed past Pantilimon.
United’s 6-1 loss to their Manchester – and now Premier League title – rivals at Old Trafford in October was apparently fresh in their minds, because Ferguson’s side were by no means content to see the game out with the security of a two-goal lead.
Welbeck had Richards and Kolarov for company when Giggs’ pass slipped him into the City penalty area and some neat footwork drew a clear foul from the latter. Foy had no hesitation in pointing to the spot and, after his penalty was well-saved by the unfortunate Pantilimon, Rooney reacted well to head home the rebound and extend his side’s lead.
Welbeck almost made it four moments later when he just failed to touch home a superb Valencia cross and by the break Mancini had seen enough to acknowledge the game was well out of his side’s reach. David Silva and Adam Johnson’s legs were rested as they were withdrawn at half time for Pablo Zabaleta and Stefan Savic. City reverted to a 5-2-2 formation with Zabaleta and Kolarov operating as wing-backs.
Great blue hope | Aguero second sparked hope of an unlikely comeback
Kolarov in fact almost immediately made up for the error that led to the United penalty by pulling a goal back shortly after the restart to offer the most optimistic of City fans a glimmer of hope. After Richards’ charging run forward was ended prematurely by Evra, the Serbian curled the resulting free-kick over the wall and beyond Lindegaard.
Not long after his goal, Kolarov again appeared to commit a foul in his own area which could have truly ended the tie. This time he impeded Valencia’s run but Foy was unmoved.
Ferguson was confident enough to introduce the returning Scholes on the hour mark, but one of his first touches was not the finest of his illustrious career. The 37-year-old weighted a simple pass from a throw-in incorrectly, allowing the tireless Milner to steal in. His cross found Aguero, who put City on the verge of a remarkable comeback by poking home the rebound after Lindegaard had saved his initial effort.
A reinvigorated Etihad Stadium might have thought the comeback was on but as the minutes ticked away the reality of City’s situation, with ten men, became more apparent. United began to retain the ball with increasing ease, with Scholes, unperturbed by his earlier error, dictating the play like he had never been away.
Kolarov, very much at the centre of this match, had time to send in a cross that Phil Jones appeared to block with his arm before firing in a free-kick in the dying moments that caused panic in the United box but Ferguson’s side did just enough to ensure they moved into the fourth round.
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