By Greg Stobart at Old Trafford
The 'noisy neighbours' went into Manchester United's own back yard on Sunday and set off a rocket that will live long in the memory of fans of both clubs in this city for very different reasons.
Sir Alex Ferguson described it as his “worst ever day” as United manager after City's rampant 6-1 victory, their biggest win in the Manchester derby since 1926 and a result that makes them favourites to win the Premier League title this season.
Roberto Mancini's side stretched the gap at the summit of the table to five points, they took their goals tally to 33 from nine games and they looked simply irresistible as they crossed Manchester and demolished the title holders.
This was the Manchester version of Barcelona's stunning 5-0 win over Real Madrid in last season's El Clasico; this was a statement, not just to United, Sir Alex and the Glazers, but to the whole football world.
In David Silva, City can boast the outstanding player of the season so far, a genuine A-lister who glides around the pitch with grace and thinks two steps ahead of everyone else. The diminutive Spaniard was simply sensational here, his perfect ball for Edin Dzeko's second goal – City's sixth – a glorious example of his exceptional talent. And he deserved his goal.
Silva lining | The playmaker was outstanding in City's 6-1 win at Old Trafford
So did Mario Balotelli, who kept his fireworks on the pitch and was involved in the incidents that won City the match. “Why Always Me?” was the slogan the temperamental Italian revealed on his shirt after shooting the visitors into the lead with an accurate shot in the 22nd minute. For all his controversies off the pitch, he has stepped up his game this season and is, perhaps, the player to have benefited most from Mancini's bitter row with Carlos Tevez. Balotelli forced the 47th-minute sending off of Jonny Evans – the turning point of the game – when he was tugged back by the Northern Irishman, and he doubled the advantage from close range on the hour mark.
It is still too early to say that the power has shifted in Manchester, but we are now seeing the result of the Abu Dhabi billions that have been ploughed into the City squad, a group of players littered with talent and now playing with a togetherness and attacking purpose.
There were sensational performances all over the pitch in addition to the contributions of Silva and Balotelli. James Milner justified his inclusion ahead of Samir Nasri as he picked out inch-perfect passes for the first two goals, while Micah Richards had the freedom of Old Trafford as he bombed forward with power and pace in the second-half, while Dzeko displayed his finishing prowess with two late goals.
"There's a lot of embarrassment in the dressing room and rightly so. It was our worst ever day. It's the worst result in my history, ever. I'm shattered, I can't believe it"
"There's a lot of embarrassment in the dressing room and rightly so," said Sir Alex after the match. "It was our worst ever day. It's the worst result in my history, ever. I'm shattered, I can't believe it. It was an incredible disappointment.”
The Scot rightly pointed to Evans' sending off as the turning point in the game but he also lamented his side's naivety. Rarely, if ever, has Ferguson suggested that United should have accepted a 3-1 or 4-1 defeat rather than continue with gung-ho attack.
“It was crazy football,” he added. “I would have thought that with the experience of Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra it wouldn't have happened.”
Yet Ferdinand and Evra were particularly dreadful in the horror show and all at sea defensively as they had no answer to City's swift pass-and-move football on the counter-attack. In front of them, the United back four had almost no protection from the midfield, allowing Silva to drift into space and slice them apart.
It was a long way from the 8-2 thrashing dished out to Arsenal at Old Trafford in August. On that afternoon, questions were rightly asked about the Gunners' woeful defensive display. It is only right that the same should be asked of a United side that has conceded far too many chances to opponents this season. The communication was non-existent, the marking dreadful and the decision-making consistently wrong.
This was supposed to be the year United took a step closer to Barcelona after their humbling defeat to the Spanish giants in the Champions League final in May. More than €57 million was spent over the summer to that end, with the signings of Phil Jones, Ashley Young and David de Gea.
While the main problems have been defensive, how United supporters must be ruing the failed pursuit of Wesley Sneijder in the summer. The hosts had no control of the game as City dominated the midfield. Darren Fletcher was full of running but well below-par while Anderson seems to be found out against the best teams.
In attack, Wayne Rooney had no space to operate as Yaya Toure and Gareth Barry plugged the gaps, while Nani was starved of service and isolated on the right, and Young might as well have disappeared into a puff of dust after an encouraging first 10 minutes.
Sir Alex is the master of psychology and his team are mentally strong enough to bounce back from this result. Yet United have no reference point for such a humbling thrashing, at home, by their local rivals. A trip to Everton on Saturday is far from the ideal follow-up game and will provide a stern test. It is worth remembering that whatever the humiliation of Sunday's result, the damage remains three dropped points.
The gap in Manchester has closed, the balance is shifting - but hasn't shifted. As Sir Alex said last season, he has beaten off challenges from Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea in his 25 years at the helm and the only constant has been that United have remained serious challengers, year on year.
Now, on their own doorstep, they face potentially the biggest challenge of all. The noisy neighbours have sent their message, loud and clear.
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