By Greg Stobart at Etihad Stadium
A game that had everything was always going to draw in the old cliche about ‘the magic of the FA Cup’ - but Sunday’s compelling Manchester derby had nothing to do with the oldest competition in world football.
Instead, it had everything to do with an irresistible rivalry between the best two teams in the country, two clubs based four miles apart in a city where football verges on an obsession.
Whether it is the FA Cup, the Premier League or the Community Shield, the United and City players will go for each others’ throats, spilling blood, sweat and tears in the process.
As one attack pulsed after another, the decibel level at the Etihad Stadium - home of the ‘noisy neighbours’ - only increased. As fans of both sides braved the emotional rollercoaster, those in the away end went from singing ‘we want seven’ to celebrating only conceding twice.
It was a game that had it all, eventually ending in a 3-2 victory for United, who booked another blockbuster tie in the fourth round against Liverpool. It was the strangest of afternoons, whether it was Paul Scholes’ shock comeback, Vincent Kompany’s red card or the sight of giant City keeper Costel Pantilimon heading towards goal in the dying seconds.
United got the job done - just - almost entirely thanks to their first-half performance following Kompany’s 12th minute dismissal for a two-footed challenge on Nani.
Blue sees red | City captain Kompany was sent off in the 12th minute
By that stage, United were already in the lead. Who else but Wayne Rooney? The striker responded to recent stories about his relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson by scoring two goals, both of which he celebrated by kissing the crest on his shirt.
“It is the situation that existed many years ago with Paul Gascoigne,” said Sir Alex of his combustible star. “Any flaws will be absolutely annihilated by the press. That is what they are like.”
Rooney looked fired up and close to his best in a roving role behind Danny Welbeck. He may come with baggage and he may sometimes be a nightmare to handle - but he provided a reminder that he is indispensable at Old Trafford. Historically a streaky goalscorer, his form in the second half of the season could be a crucial factor in determining the destination of the Premier League title.
Welbeck’s volley in between Rooney’s double meant United went in at the break with a 3-0 advantage, but City’s 10-men dragged themselves back into the game through strikes from Aleksandar Kolarov and the excellent Sergio Aguero.
The brave fightback staged by Roberto Mancini’s side prompted claims from the City players of a moral victory, while the Italian manager declared his belief that the club will win their first title in 44 years if the players show the same attitude in the remainder of the season.
| DERBY DAY DRAMA
Memorable recent clashes
|Oct 23 2011
||Man Utd 1-6 Man City
|Aug 7 2011
||Man Utd 3-2 Man City
|April 16 2011
||Man City 1-0 Man Utd
|Feb 12 2011
||Man Utd 2-1 Man City
|Jan 27 2010
||Man Utd 3-1 Man City
|Jan 19 2010
||Man City 2-1 Man Utd
|Sep 20 2009
||Man Utd 4-3 Man City|
City are, after all, only three points clear of United at the summit of the table and face a tricky month of fixtures without key midfielder Yaya Toure. There are many more psychological blows to be landed before a potential knockout when United return to the Etihad Stadium on the last weekend of April. What an occasion that could be.
Just like most matches between the teams over the last few years. No supporters will ever need reminding of the ‘demolition derby’ when City won 6-1 at Old Trafford in October, and few will forget Rooney’s stunning overhead kick that separated the sides in February.
Throw in Yaya Toure’s FA Cup heroics as City won their first trophy in 35 years, add two thrilling League Cup ties in January 2010 and Michael Owen’s winner in 'Fergie time' as United triumphed in one of the greatest games in Premier League history. They even made the Community Shield exciting.
It may not have the sexiness of ‘El Clasico’ in Spain, but the rivalry pits the most successful club of the last 20 years against the world’s richest club, the Premier League leaders thanks to a squad assembled at a cost of the best part of £350 million.
It is a rivalry that will only grow as City improve and United attempt to preserve the status quo in this metropolis. It is a rivalry between two managers who can point any detractors in the direction of their CV.
From a tactical point of view, it was Mancini who impressed on Sunday, reverting to a bizarre 5-2-1-1 as City kept the visitors at bay in the second half while springing on the counterattack.
Sir Alex no longer looks down on the noisy neighbours with a condescending sneer. Instead, he is genuinely worried by the threat on his own doorstep. The Scot has always felt title races are between United and one other side. Well this year, it’s City. And next year, it will be City. Buckle up.
Like all the best rivalries, the history is being written with every game, a rich catalogue of classics being stored for the archives. The next match always feels bigger than the last in the compelling tale of the modern day Manchester derby. So April 28 - book it in your diary.
Follow Greg Stobart on