This is how Alex Ferguson described the aftermath of the 5-1 defeat to Manchester City at Maine Road in 1989. Writing a decade later in his autobiography, Ferguson revealed that for several days after that match he found it hard to meet the eyes of people in the street, he felt that he had let his supporters down in a deeply personal way.
It’s unlikely Ferguson feels anything like that bad this time around. The Manchester City that beat him in 1989 was a penniless shambles. Today’s Manchester City is financially doped to bursting point and rippling with demonic power.
We know now that City are not “realistic title contenders” — they are the favourites. They have more top players than anyone else and the players are being paid so much money that it is their duty to win the league. When the weight of expectation comes from outside, players can buckle under the pressure; inwardly they fear they will come up short and that creates anxiety. City’s expectation comes from within. This squad of players knows that nobody else can touch them. What we saw at Old Trafford was the expression of a collective sense of destiny.
United sensed it too. They had started gamely enough, zipping the ball about with pace, but City refused to be intimidated, their discipline and organisation never wavered, they never made a mistake to give United the scent of blood. Slowly the tide began to turn.
Mario Balotelli’s needle-like finish punctured the confidence of the Old Trafford crowd. His insouciant deadpan celebration at a stroke returned him to the right side of the fine line between great entertainer and clown.
His second, from close range after City’s passing had shredded United’s defence, ultimately proved the winning goal, but it was the sending-off of Jonny Evans for a foul on Balotelli that had decided the issue.
That red card meant there were one too many outs for a Manchester United team that didn’t want to be there. Their challenge simply collapsed. What followed was Apollo Creed succumbing to Ivan Drago. City effortlessly kept the ball from tired United challenges, and when Fletcher advanced to curl in a pretty consolation goal at the Stretford End, City punished the insolence with three more concussive blows.
United can say they were chasing a goal but there is little excuse for the raggedness of their defending at the end. The rout poses serious questions about the character of a side that started the season in a blaze of goals and glory but has since been made to look average by Norwich and Galati, and annihilated by a side with a real cutting edge. United began the season dreaming that an influx of youthful energy might have helped them to close the gap on Barcelona. The real challenge for them is on the home front.
The next few weeks will be uncomfortable for United. The focus will now be on Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck, both anonymous yesterday; on Phil Jones, who started on the bench after a run of average performances. Jones, in particular, was hyped to the rafters by United fans euphoric to have taken the player from under the noses of Liverpool, and as a defender he’s got some great qualities — strength, force, determination. But he lacks the judgement and the finesse to play in midfield for Manchester United, and to see him repeatedly appearing in there suggests there is a talent shortage in that department. (Before the Champions League final, Xavi did an interview where he spoke of his admiration for the midfield play of Paul Scholes, it would be interesting to hear his views on the midfield play of Jones).
Are these players worthy successors to legends like Cantona, Keane, Ronaldo, or are they just the boys of summer? United’s fixture list includes Everton and Villa away, Sunderland and Newcastle at home, all winnable, yet all potentially treacherous. Now we get to find out what this United team is all about.
City, meanwhile, are so strong they can absorb the self-destruction of their best player of the last two years with scarcely a flinch. In fact, they look a more structured, better-balanced side without Carlos Tevez tearing around unpredictably, trying to win matches on his own. Aguero and Samir Nasri have been world-class additions, and David Silva is the outstanding player in the Premier League. These players could all get injured and City could still field world-class replacements. That depth is why they are the favourites to win the league and why they, and not Barcelona, are the side United need to catch.