The Manchester Derby of this season was not as telling as that of last season. Certainly, the one at this same stage last year was definitive in that Vincent Kompany’s winner inevitably led to the direct destination of the Premier League trophy. That however was at the Etihad, and it was that 6-1 win at Old Trafford that had sent shock waves across Manchester, and the helm of the English League system.
This time, that was not the case as a 15 point gap separated England’s top teams prior to the game’s commencement. But as the derby came to an end, that gap was reduced to 12.
The reality on the ground showed that despite what the league table says, the Manchester neighbours are not that far apart.
In fact, City showed that they are ahead. The game was dominated by a midfield revelling in the quality of the likes of David Silva and Yaya Toure. Indeed, it was telling that in terms of clear cut chances created on the night, the team in blue shaded it.
Not just the quality however. Working behind the scenes was Roberto Mancini whom for all those who critisize his constant tactical thinking, he has gotten the decisions right on the most grand of occasions. He did the same once again, as the decision to crowd the midfield and have a lone striker, then introducing Sergio Aguero to partner the terrior-like Carlos Tevez, proved to be a master stroke.
Before that tactical switch however, the two clubs had scored in the narratives that have so defined their respective seasons. The opener came from the tireless James Milner, who has become a shining light in an otherwise dark season for the citizens. He after all is the one whom in recent games has come in for the unmotivated and sometimes disinterested Samir Nasri.
Indeed, when all the shenanigans that surrounded Mario Balotelli in that emphatic win at Old Trafford are filtered out, the evidence points to Milner as the most important player in that game.
And here, he sought to overprint his underrated stature by grabbing the first goal. The debate from United’s end is that the goal should not have stood as Tevez was in an offside position by virtue of interfering with David De Gea’s line of vision. That argument however is quashed by the fact that despite what the letter of the law says, the linesman was nowhere near, nor anywhere in a position to interpret it as such and thus it was impossible for him to have given the offside.
That notwithstanding, it was exactly what City deserved for their more adventurous efforts.
The response though from United was swift. A wonderfully swept in free kick from Robin Van Persie had the pace to evade Joe Hart, and such was its confusing nature that it led to a double deflection and a City own goal via the back of Kompany.
That illustrated just what United’s resolve this season has been. Once again, United were competing from a position which was not deserved, but gathered through sheer grit and determination.
This time though, that would be reduced as Aguero’s audacious run amidst a host of red shirts brought about the winner. It was reminiscent of that final day of last season that won Manchester City the title and denied the Red Devils. Partly also, on the day that Margaret Thatcher had passed away, it was also reminiscent of Diego Maradona’s run against the English at the 1986 World Cup.
However, Aguero’s goal may not prove to be as definitive as that of his father in law all those years ago. In the long run, it will be sad on the Blues fans if such a brilliant piece of magic counts for nothing more than bragging rights come season’s end.
That however is where City will gather hope. For this is their second consecutive win in the League at Old Trafford. From a time where getting a result against their illustrious neighbours was just enough, the fact that it may not bring the title back to the Etihad points to just how far the club has moved since the injection of money by Sheikh Al Mansour.
For since that moment in 2011 when Yaya Toure stormed past Michael Carrick and Nemanja Vidic to score in the FA Cup semi-final, City has had the better of the fixtures between the two. Certainly, United has not won a Manchurian Derby in anything like an emphatic fashion hence. The FA Cup 3rd Round tie of last season was decided by a Kompany red card early on, and ended with United clinging on to win against ten men. Similarly, the frantic start to this season’s Derby fizzled out in the second half and the derby was only won by a last minute Nasri deflection.
It thus points to a meaningful record against the Red Devils. One that on the night will leave Mancini wondering just how he finds himself so far behind on points when the head to head shows something imposingly different.
That said, the loss suffered by United shows exactly what has happened to their momentous start. The high momentum has been lost and as evidenced by the slim wins against Reading and Sunderland of late, it is the ability to grind out wins that is carrying them through the end of the season. If anything, that start has helped, and it is what still has them as favourites for the title.
For where on the odd occasion Mancini’s tactics have gone beyond the threshold of over-thought, United’s basic fighting spirit put them past the more stubborn teams and uninspired performances.
City however showed that the resolve can be tested and can fail that test. As Real Madrid and Chelsea have already showed, the fault lines within United’s structure when sufficiently poked can ultimately be breached.
However, there is a sense that rather than destiny being denied, it has merely been delayed. The procession has not been halted, but was paused. In the silence of that pause however is the realisation that this is a battle that is bound to continue in seasons to come.
For now at least, the present points to a mixed feeling. City showed that they are definitely kings of Manchester. Man United’s early league form however means that they will dethrone their neighbours on the national level. The Derby loss will however leave a blemish on their legitimacy. That while they overcame all in their quest to reclaim the title, they could not emphatically defeat their most fierce city rivals and the outgoing champions.
*** All images courtesy of zimbio ***