It was meant to be the most important derby of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United career.
If it was, it did not feel like it.
The stage was set. All eyes were on Manchester. Everyone knew this was going to be big. Even ‘El Diego’ didn’t want to miss it. The record for international foreign broadcasters at a Barclays Premier League stadium was eleven. At the Etihad, there were twenty-three. So momentous was the occasion that even Jon Champion was called up to commentate, meaning that for once on a Monday, we would not be listening to the wise words of Martin Tyler.
But at the end of it all, Jon Champion could not even master a catch phrase for this game.
It was he, after all who’d called it a ‘seismic day in English football’ the last time both Manchester clubs had clashed in the league. “Highly spectacular, totally unexpected,” he’d said. He’d commented on seven goals, six of them from City. He probably wasn’t expecting the same outcome, but he was probably hoping for the same amount of drama. Everyone was.
But to be honest, the most exciting thing on the night was a touchline bust up between an old Scot of knightly realm, and the rising Caesar of Manchester.
To dub it boring would be going too far. It wasn’t boring; not with all that was riding on it. Not with the prospect of going top of the table. Certainly not when Vincent Kompany rose above all to resoundingly head in David Silva’s corner. It was at the stroke of half time. The Captain was leading by example. It wasn’t boring. But it wasn’t highly spectacular either. It wasn’t totally unexpected.
The lineups echoed the impact that Chelsea’s win over Barcelona could eventually have on football as a whole. While Roberto Mancini went for his usual lineup, disregarding the weaknesses it may have and choosing rather to concentrate on the strengths, Sir Alex, just as Chelsea had done, went for caution. He wanted to minimize City’s strengths. He wanted to be reactive; let them make the first move. He did not want to take the game to them. Mancini was brave enough to do so. Fortune, it is said, favors the brave.
The decisions were probably down to the context. United didn’t necessarily need a win. They just had to avoid defeat. City’s only target was a win. And it helped that they had only one target. They could focus on one thing. United on the other hand, did not know whether to shake, or twist.
And that is what they did for ninety minutes. Passing the ball around devoid of a plan. No incisiveness. No decision whether to go forwards or backwards. Not knowing whether to keep possession, or cede it. Not knowing whether to hold it, or release it quickly.
The Citizens knew. Knew they had to win. Knew where they had to exploit. Ji Sung Park was in the center, not the left. He was there probably to track Yaya Toure. Toure played towards the wing, leaving the South Korean as a mere spectator on the pitch. Ryan Giggs was on the left. He did not have the legs to cover Patrice Evra. David Silva and Samir Nasri doubled up on the Frenchman. City did not even bother with the other wing, even though Nani could not track back. Even though Phil Jones is inexperienced.
And Wayne Rooney was up front on his own. Frustratingly for him, there was no service. Gareth Barry made sure of that. He overran Paul Scholes. He typified City’s strategy. Defending by attacking. Pushing the United midfield so far deep. Deep into their own half. It worked. He was Man of the Match. More importantly, his work rate made the gap between Rooney and the rest of his teammates too huge. It was a tactical nightmare for Sir Alex. And when he tried to change it, Mancini responded better. Mancini tightened the midfield. He even had the nerve to switch it to three at the back and played with wing backs. It was Italian in nature. Italian tactics working against the best in England. The defending champions being dethroned.
And they didn’t even put up a fight. They didn’t even try. It never looked as if they would score. There was never a shot on target. Never did it look as if they would move up the gears. Never did it look like the dreaded 80th minute. The five minutes of Fergie time never looked threatening. They were five more minutes for the City fans to heap more noise. Five more minutes for the Poznan. Five more minutes for the Etihad to live up to its Arabic meaning; united – against United.
It’s in games like these that Jon Champion remarks “the anticipation is usually greater than the reality.” The anticipation was greater than the reality. But the reality, eventually was more important. The reality is that now, Manchester City have established themselves as more than worthy opponents of their decorated neighbours. More importantly, they have put the title race into their own hands. They are the frontrunners now. They are signaling the beginning of an era.
It is the rise of the blue moon.