LIAM MACKEY: The same new, same new United

Sky Sports attempted to inject a little Hollywood glamour into proceedings at the Etihad yesterday, parading Tom Cruise and Robert Duvall in front of the cameras before kick-off.

Wee Tom, probably wisely, kept his punditry bland but the veteran Duvall appeared anxious to establish his footie credentials, name-checking Pele and Jimmy Johnstone, no less, before rather spoiling the effect by asking if there would be a shoot-out if the game ended in a tie.

Well, there wasn’t, but it came close enough, when Robin van Persie – with help from a lazy leg-up by Samir Nasri – provided the sudden death end to a pulsating game to give Manchester United victory and end Manchester City’s formidable unbeaten home record.

Last year’s crazy run-in should be enough to remind the gullible that April, never mind December, can be too early to call a title race but the three points United gained here – and, for City, the demoralising manner in which they finally lost the game – ought to translate into a significant psychological boost for Alex Ferguson’s men, worth even more than their current six-point advantage, in the Premier League title race.

Yet the result couldn’t quite mask the fact that for long periods yesterday United once again made it hard for themselves. For the first quarter of an hour, as City strung the passes together, United were entirely on the back foot, Rio Ferdinand guilty of an early lapse before the first clear sight of goal opened up for Mario Balotelli. It was no more than a difficult half-chance but as the Italian blazed over, Ferguson was entitled to once again feel glad that van Persie had opted for a red rather than a blue shirt.

And glad too, that in Wayne Rooney he retains the services of one of the English game’s great homegrown talents. Wholly against the run of play, Rooney made the most of a classic United counter attack to put his side ahead, albeit with one of those scuffed shots that, literally, can leave a goalkeeper flat-footed, as Joe Hart found out to his cost.

With the returning Antonio Valencia a powerful threat on the right, United were able to make the most from minimal possession, Rooney’s habit of arriving late in the box paying dividends when he doubled his and his team’s advantage before the break. Two shots, two goals – United’s fabled cutting edge had once again proved the difference in 45 minutes of football which must have left Roberto Mancini wondering how, from such a promising position, City had found themselves in such a hole.

One obvious reason was the manager’s perverse selection of Balotelli over Carlos Tevez from the off, a misjudgement confirmed when the Argentine replaced him early in the second half and City suddenly looked a much more energised proposition.

Nevertheless, United should have been home and hosed when Ashley Young had a goal on the rebound wrongly ruled out for offside, after van Persie had shown his class with a wonderful shot which thumped back off the inside of the upright.

But, within a minute, United had only themselves to blame when Ya Ya Toure pulled one back for City. In fairness, their much maligned defence generally stood up pretty well to the livewire movement of Sergio Aguero but, in keeping with a season of discontent at the back, they then looked like they’d surrendered two points from a position of strength on the scoreboard, when Pablo Zabaete struck with four minutes left.

There was still time, however, for Robin van Persie to stamp his mark on his first Manchester derby before the good and the bad of what Wayne Rooney later called a “crazy” game, gave way to the ugly, as a flying missile drew blood from Rio Ferdinand.

Conclusions for United? They still haven’t found a new Paul Scholes to dictate a game from midfield and they still need Nemanja Vidic to get back ASAP, but in Rooney and Van Persie they have a brace of outstanding players who share the kind of lethal eye for goal which helps ensure that, even after a poor start and a wobble in the middle, it can all still end in a celebratory finish.

The same new, same new United, in other words.


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