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A late goal from Robin van Persie sealed all three points for Manchester United at Etihad Stadium after a five-goal thriller which will live long in the memory

COMMENT
By Jack Gaughan

As the blood poured from a gash just above Rio Ferdinand’s left eye yesterday it was time for reflection. The defender, on watching Robin van Persie win the Manchester derby for the red half, celebrated in front of both sets of supporters, before being hit with a coin by disgruntled home fans.

Clearly there needs to be reconsideration as to the state of the English terraces – this unsavoury incident mirrored that of Leeds United’s shame at Sheffield Wednesday earlier in the season - but it also painted a graphic picture for those not privy to the battle grounds in the country’s premier footballing city. Coins being hurled and an intruder on the pitch – it did not look good – was not a fair representation of the day as a whole.

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Derby normalities dictated that there had always been an undercurrent to this fixture, obviously, but since Manchester City’s inherited wealth, and their crusade for domestic honours, it has heightened. The rivalry has intensified. But the actions of a small minority tucked away in a corner of the Etihad Stadium should not deter from an afternoon, although heated, that was not as poisonous as the pictures at the end presented.
 
Greater Manchester Police made just two arrests all day – one for ticket touting and the other, more strikingly, for alleged racist chanting. Luckily, if found guilty, the latter will not be allowed back into a football ground any time soon.

This is not Istanbul or Rome, this is Manchester. After Martin Atkinson had blown the final whistle there were no running battles in the streets, no arrests. But for a mindless section of the home support situated right next to the away fans – there is one big reason why they choose to sit there – this match would have passed without incident.

For years, City were treated - as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer put it before this encounter - like a smaller brother. Their whimsical attacking football, especially in the home games earlier last decade, and the results they brought, were more an annoyance than a setback to United. Shaun Wright-Phillips’ stunner, consigning them to a 4-1 defeat in March 2004, was disappointing but in the grand scheme of things mattered little. Goals from Benjani and Darius Vassell at Old Trafford four years later did not stop United winning the league.

There was, and for the most part still is, very little bile splattered towards City. That is reserved almost exclusively for Liverpool.

The tide could be turning, because despite being under par for the entirety of this campaign thus far, City are the team to beat. What comes with the territory, and not playing particularly brilliantly, is edginess, worry and ultimately frustration when a player you ought to have signed in the summer scores an injury-time winner for a rival in your own back yard. What followed were inexcusable actions from a few Neanderthals – especially the moron who was excellently contained by Joe Hart after making a break for the pitch – but should not detract from a derby that is finding itself again and is not fitting to stereotype.  

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The football itself had all the blood and thunder expected, was breathtakingly watchable and as a 90 minutes possessed everything. Twenty-five goals in their last five meetings – it is remarkable that these two continue to throw up super spectacles given the pressure surrounding the occasion and that so many much-billed matches fall way short of what is predicted.

Had Carlo Tevez started, it may have been a very different story; similarly if Mario Balotelli’s through-ball to Sergio Aguero had been measured instead of wild, seconds before United took the lead in the first half. The visitors might have romped home had Ashley Young not been wrongly ruled out for offside moments prior to Yaya Toure getting a goal back to set up a tense finale. Fine lines and margins are an exciting part of these feasts.

There are the managerial subplots, too. Roberto Mancini and Sir Alex Ferguson backhanding compliments back and forth make the drama compelling viewing from the start and conjure an atmosphere in the two camps that are strangely warming at the top end of the Premier League: everyone goes into it acting the underdog. There are no brash, cringeworthy 'statements of intent' – a stance borne out of respect, as well as the odd mind game.

The fun played out in the press from now until the end of May will be calculated, as always, and solely focused on the two-horse race that has emerged from a fairly early stage. It is one, much like last season, we just cannot keep our eyes off.
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