“Priority number one is to win the title back.” Those were the resolute words from Sir Alex Ferguson during the summer after Manchester United endured the gut-wrenching experience of losing their Premier League crown to their cross-town rivals with virtually the last kick of the season. His declaration immediately lifted spirits across the red half of Manchester and the belief with which it was conveyed likened it to a prophecy of sorts. It’s far too early to say whether that ‘prophecy’ will be fulfilled but United’s six-point cushion at the summit following their enthralling away win over Manchester City certainly helps.
Ferguson’s statement was coated with positivity and there was more than an element of that in the way he set up his side on Sunday despite his cautious approach in the last meeting between the two teams. He successfully hoodwinked most by claiming that Antonio Valencia would be out for weeks a mere 48 hours prior to the clash at the Etihad Stadium. As it turned out, Valencia was indeed fit enough to make the starting eleven and the Ecuadorian’s inclusion may have made all the difference.
Valencia made a huge difference
Valencia’s presence was not crucial because he played out of his skin but because it allowed United to play to their strengths. With Ashley Young thought to be the only winger available to Sir Alex, the experimented diamond formation came into contention but given that United have always played at their best with natural width, Valencia’s name on the team sheet would have been a welcome sight for United fans.
In many ways, United put in the perfect away performance. They were lethal on the counter-attack in the first half, a quality they owed largely to the presence of two recognized wingers among their ranks. Inevitably, both their first half goals came from good play down the flanks, the first a product of a swift counter-attack. They kept their shape without the ball but were ambitious when in possession.
Rooney's second put United in command
“For 20 minutes they did not touch the ball," Roberto Mancini opined in his post-match comment. An understandable remark given his side’s domination in the early stages of the game but perhaps a tad exaggerated, especially since Wayne Rooney’s opener came in the 15th minute. However, until that point United did well to soak up the pressure. Conceding early would have been the last thing Sir Alex would have wanted and to his surprise, his side did not go behind at all this time despite their come-from-behind pattern this season.
Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans dealt with absolutely everything in the air and were solid throughout while the full-backs hardly put a foot wrong with Rafael da Silva even supplying the cross for Rooney’s second. The central midfield pairing of Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley kept things simple in the middle where they stood strong against City’s narrow midfield with the help of Rooney who kept tabs on Yaya Toure.
United defence was resilient
City predictably came out all guns blazing in the second half and United’s defence had to be resilient once more. Carlos Tevez’s introduction saw a marked increase in the number of City attacks and United did well to deny them initially.
The day’s events would not have been complete without controversy and so the officials duly obliged yet again. Robin Van Persie saw little of the ball for most of the game but his excellent strike with his weaker foot cannoned off the post before Young tapped in the rebound only for it to be wrongly ruled out for offside. That would have extended United’s lead by three goals to nil but as luck would have it the hosts went down the other end and pulled a goal back.
Yaya Toure was the man on target despite David de Gea’s impressive double save leading up to it. The Spaniard was surprisingly composed between the posts throughout the game, coming off his line to collect crosses and making a few crucial saves but there was nothing he could do about Pablo Zabaleta’s equaliser five minutes from time.
Zabaleta restored parity
The ball fell to the Argentine’s feet on the edge of the box from a corner and his effort zipped past a sea of players before finding the net. The home fans not only sensed that the game was rescued but also that they could go on to win it. On the pitch, the goal-scorer frantically motioned for his teammates to follow him back to the half-line so they could complete the comeback as is their habit of late. Given that United are yet to draw a game this season, a grandstand finish was always on the cards.
A point would have been a good result for the visitors as it meant retaining their place at the top of the pile but the positive attitude within the side came to the fore again and they refrained from sitting back and blocking City’s attempts at a winner. When they won possession, they didn’t lump it forward towards one corner of the ground, they looked to keep it and fashion an opportunity for themselves. Rafael managed to draw a foul from Carlos Tevez and won a free-kick in a dangerous position.
Rooney and Van Persie stood over the dead-ball but the angle was always most suitable for the left-footer. In a post-match interview, Van Persie reveals that Rooney asked whether he was going to cross or shoot and the former Arsenal talisman replied, “I’m going to have a shot”, keeping with the positive theme of United’s display.
Van Persie steals the show
His curling effort took a slight nick off the wall and evaded Joe Hart at the far post sending the away fans into delirium. In retrospect, another former Arsenal man had a hand (or leg) in the goal as Samir Nasri inexplicably shied away from his responsibility as part of a three-man wall leaving but a stray leg in his place to provide the telling deflection. Mancini directed criticism at the Frenchman by stating that the wall was made up of only 'two and a half players' in his post-match comment and you have to say that the criticism was justified.
From City’s point of view, they were the better team for long spells in the game and they got their just reward with their two goals but were ultimately sucker-punched by a United side that always looked capable of scoring as well.
Coincidently, the two strikers who bagged the goals against them are ones who could well have donned their colours. Rooney was linked with the Citizens in 2010 before Sir Alex's powers of persuasion initiated a dramatic U-turn that saw the striker pledge his future to the red half of Manchester. Mancini made no secret of his desire to sign Van Persie this summer but the Dutchman decided The Theatre of Dreams was the right place for him to realize his own dream of winning the Premier League.
City were sucker-punched
Wayne Rooney was in top form and thoroughly deserved his Man of the Match award. The English international’s brace took him ahead of Bobby Charlton as the most prolific player in the Manchester derby while also becoming the youngest player to score 150 goals in the Premier League. However, when it comes to stealing the show, no one does it better than Robin van Persie and the Dutchman was at it again as he grabbed that spectacular late winner for the away side.
STAT: This is the first time Manchester United have recorded victories away to Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City in the same season in the league since 1913.
Mancini’s decision making must also be questioned. Starting Mario Balotelli was a huge gamble and one that failed severely. Tevez was a livewire when he came on and probably should have started in the first place. Vincent Kompany’s injury in the first half was unfortunate but the decision to replace him with Kolo Toure rather than Joleon Lescott was bewildering to say the least.
The key to United’s victory was in being positive but not naïve. ‘Parking the bus’ would have only invited more pressure on themselves but flooding forward would have allowed City to pick them off with ease. The opposing managers are poles apart as far as their personalities are concerned and their attitudes going into the game were just as contrasting. Mancini branded it ‘a game that must not be lost’ and so it was while Ferguson claimed it could be one of his ‘greatest victories’ and so it was. United always believe they can win the league but after last season's disappointments, this victory will go a long way to reassuring them.
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