Manchester City 1 Manchester United 0
Two acts of gross defensive stupidity by Chris Smalling contributed to a derby victory that reignites belief that Manchester City can retain their Premier League title but this absorbing encounter could have ended so differently.
The United centre-half collected two yellow cards in the space of seven minutes late in the first half, neither of them necessary, leaving United down to 10 men for the best part of an hour.
A bad shoulder injury early in the second half to Marcos Rojo further disrupted United’s back line and left Louis van Gaal fielding a back four that featured midfielders Antonio Valencia and Michael Carrick, along with the big-money summer signing Luke Shaw and inexperienced youngster Paddy McNair.
It was a recipe for disaster, given that City had already seen three perfectly justifiable penalty claims rejected by referee Michael Oliver.
Yet, apart from Sergio Aguero’s well-taken 63rd-minute effort, City could not produce the deluge that seemed so inevitable and, incredibly, United themselves would go on to waste at least three superb chances to escape from the Etihad with the most unlikely of points.
The goal was vintage Aguero, as he slipped his marker McNair and latched onto a cross from Gael Clichy on the left-hand by-line, the City forward ramming the ball into the roof of the United goal with some style and menace from eight yards.
It was no more than City deserved for a dominant opening hour in which referee Oliver had done a far better job that United’s defence in keeping Manuel Pellegrini’s team at bay.
First, Oliver denied a penalty claim after Marouane Fellaini clattered into Aguero from behind before the referee denied an even stronger appeal in first-half injury-time, when Rojo clearly hooked Toure’s leg from behind and prevented him connecting with the ball just six yards out.
A penalty there and Rojo would also have joined Smalling in being sent off — and, incidentally, saved himself what looked a sickening shoulder injury sustained when he fouled Martin Demichelis after 53 minutes.
Instead, Smalling remained the game’s only dismissal although, given United’s defensive injury problems and the general uphill nature of life for his team at the moment, his actions were especially memorable for their rank stupidity.
Cautioned after 31 minutes for charging at City keeper Joe Hart as he kicked the ball upfield, Smalling remained on the field for just seven more minutes until he connected with James Milner, who appeared to be running the ball out of play, and sent him tumbling to the ground.
A difficult task looked virtually impossible by that stage, and City maintained the pressure on the restart, with United surviving a third strong penalty appeal, this time for Carrick’s trip on Aguero, before the home side actually took the lead.
Thereafter, it should merely have been a question of how many goals City, who stand six points behind Chelsea this morning, could score to improve upon their inferior goal difference.
Yet, for all their well-publicised travails and mediocre results, Van Gaal has certainly achieved his avowed intent of instilling spirit and togetherness in his new United line-up and, over the closing half hour, it was the visitors who looked the more likely to score.
After 70 minutes, Robin van Persie skipped past Demichelis and Clichy, forcing Hart into a solid block at the near post, then Angel di Maria gathered a deflected Van Persie shot, took aim and forced the England goalkeeper into another fine, fingertip diving save. That had come following a thrilling lung and defence-busting run by Wayne Rooney, utilised in a deep midfield role by van Gaal.
Unfortunately, United’s final two chances fell to fellow midfielder Fellaini, who was far less impressive with half-hearted headers that failed to test Hart.
It would have been an astonishing draw had United managed to pull it off, and City would have had only themselves to blame for the manner in which they failed to make their superiority tell, even when playing with equal numbers.
In the spell of barely 60 seconds midway through the first half, David de Gea was forced into three saves by the home side, two of them excellent as the Spaniard denied Jesus Navas and Aguero in quick succession with lightening reflexes.
Later, as United pressed and left gaps at the back, City might have extended their lead, and Navas was unfortunate with one opportunity that struck the woodwork following tidy work by an improved Toure.
But, despite City recording a fourth successive league win over the old enemy for the first time since 1970 and the title-winning, glory years of Bell, Lee and Summerbee, this was hardly an emphatic derby victory for Pellegrini and the defending champions, who will still need to show marked improvement if they are to avoid ceding their title to Chelsea.
MAN CITY (4-4-2): Hart 7; Zabaleta 7, Kompany 7, Demichelis 6, Clichy 7; Navas 7, Toure 7, Fernando 6, Milner 7 (Nasri 69, 6); Jovetic 6 (Dzeko 71, 6), Aguero 8 (Fernandinho 83).
MAN UNITED (4-3-3): De Gea 8; Valencia 4, Smalling 3, Rojo 4 (McNair 55, 5), Shaw 7; Fellaini 5, Blind 6, Rooney 7; Januzaj 5 (Carrick 43, 6), van Persie 6 (Wilson 81), Di Maria 7.
Referee: M Oliver 4.
Three things we learned
— Chris Hatherall
Chelsea are deservedly favourites for the league title
Jose Mourinho’s side may have been unconvincing in a narrow victory over QPR 24 hours earlier, but they would have seen little in this game to make them fear their lead at the top of the Premier League is under serious threat.
Champions City will no doubt grow in confidence after taking three points in the Manchester derby but their nervy end to the game, even against 10 men, hinted that everything is still not right at the Etihad. In fact, Manuel Pellegrini’s side made hard work of scoring the winning goal — it needed yet another piece of genius from Sergio Aguero to clinch it — and looked increasingly panicky at the back, as United attempted to steal an equaliser.
Yaya Toure can still have a big influence on the season
The Manchester City midfielder has looked a broken man in recent weeks with a string of almost slovenly, half-hearted performances; and in the first 20 minutes against United, he was little better. But a red card for Chris Smalling changed the shape of the game — and with more space to work in, Toure gradually regained his confidence and his influence. By the time the final whistle went, he had been named man of the match, which is bad news for future opponents in the Premier League and bad news for Smalling. His mistake may well be the turning point for both City and Toure.
Manchester United are crying out for consistency of selection
Louis van Gaal continued his tactical tinkering by playing Wayne Rooney in midfield against City — leaving out Juan Mata — and although the Englishman produced a good performance, it only added to the long list of conundrums currently facing the United manager. With new tactics and so many injuries, United look like a team desperate for a settled side playing a settled formation. But that doesn’t look likely in the near future. When you consider Van Gaal has selected 31 different players already this season, then it is little surprise that United at times look disjointed, and give away possession too easily. They need a focal point, and Rooney can provide it. But with his excellent goalscoring record in the Manchester derby, he may have been better off up front.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved