City proved they were the top dogs in Manchester last night.
But they have still a bit of work to do before they can confirm that they are, officially, the best team in England.
In a season of improbable results, City’s hitting United for six back in October was, even by their own standards, a blue moon event. But last night’s 1-0 win was much more meaningful — not just in terms of giving them the edge in the title race but in what it said about the changing of the guard in Manchester .
Because — tight though the winning margin was on the scoreboard — the story of the night was not just about the positive manner of City’s victory; it was also about the feeble nature of United’s defeat.
In his pre-match interview, Alex Ferguson was defensive about being, well, defensive. “You never go out to play for a draw,” he said. And the unspoken sub-text was: “Not Manchester United, that’s for sure.”
Still, you can set your side up in such a way that a discernible priority is given to not losing over winning. That was clearly United’s intention from the start, evident not just in what was effectively a 4-5-1 formation, but in the recall of Ji-Sung Park, Fergie’s go-to guy whenever he expects his side to face opposition likely to dominate possession. Or, to put it another way, opposition he fears.
With a three-point advantage going into a game at the home of their biggest rivals, this was the culture club opting for counter-culture: the strategy being to soak up the pressure then break out at pace to lend support to Wayne Rooney.
But after a deceptively bright opening, the plan began to go awry. For sure, De Gea was not much troubled in the United goal for much of the first-half but Joe Hart had even less reason to be on his toes, as the play was concentrated at the other end of the pitch, with Ya Ya Toure central to helping his side generate all the pressure. Yet, for all City’s increasing dominance, the United defence rarely looked like being breached, as Sergio Aguero was restricted to half-chances at best.
Then came one of those moments which drive managers insane. Having coped reasonably comfortably with City’s various efforts up until then, United were undone by a routine set-piece: a Da Silva corner, Smalling failing to keep Kompany, and the inspirational skipper taking advantage to power home what proved to be the winning header.
Goals change games, they say, but they also change game-plans. Before the hour mark, Ferguson was tearing up his script, with Park going off and Wellbeck coming on. Later, Scholes and Nani would depart but, by then it was already too late for Valencia – who should have started instead of Nani, anyway – and Young to make the crucial difference. Or any kind of difference.
City had a line-up of contenders for man-of-the-match – Kompany, Zabeleta, Toure, Cliché – whereas no-one stood out for United.
A sobering statistic is that United had no shots on target. That might have been explicable for as long as the game remained scoreless but once City went in front, you fully expected a roaring Red response. But it didn’t materialise. In the second-half, Joe Hart didn’t have a single save to make and, had Nasri not been indecisive, City would have made the concluding period of the game far more comfortable for themselves, even if United never really threatened to make it all that nerve-racking.
All that said, this was one game won, not a title secured There are still two games to go and, lest we forget, this crazy, compelling season has already given us such wild surprises as United 8 Arsenal 2, United 1 City 6 and Everton 4 United 4, not to mention the Reds losing to Blackburn and City losing to Sunderland.
So, it’s advantage City. But…
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