Manchester United have consolidated their position as Premier League table-toppers in the lead up to the Christmas period with a 3-2 win over neighbours Manchester City. The Manchester Derby has become the most highly anticipated fixture on the Premier League calendar in the past couple of years as both United and City have confirmed their position as 1st and 2nd in the league.
The match was pulsating, eclipsing either encounter in the league last year. It delivered the kind of quality and fluid attacking play that has become synonymous with both teams, producing a spectacle that had the footballing world looking on in amazement. For twenty years Manchester United have unquestionably been the dominant force in English football, claiming the Premier League title 12 times out of 20. But with Manchester City’s financial backing, they have staked their own claim to being the team everyone fears the most. Thus, the derby has transcended the red superiority witnessed in the 90s when City were regularly battling relegation while simultaneously watching their local counterparts go from strength to strength, trophy to trophy. City have progressed through a tumultuous time in the Premier to League to emerge as Champions, and worthy Champions at that. The fact that they usurped United’s position of supremacy with the final kick of last season has added a ferocious competitive twist to the struggle for power in footballing England, with each encounter presented the teams with more than just local pride and bragging rights.
United were counter-attacking splendour. They exploited the weakness on the flanks of City by orchestrating a number of attacks down the right and left which produced two goals in a first half that saw United go in at half-time 2-0 up. Dreamland. City seemed to settle into the game more at the beginning, but a swift double of counter-attacks provided Wayne Rooney with two goals, making him the most prolific player in this fixture’s history. City looked ragged and uneasy in the first half, looking like they were going to surrender a six-point deficit to United after the final whistle.
City have that rare quality though that moulds great teams into Champions; fight. Reminiscent of United’s way of winning matches, City never seem to look fully beaten. They can be poor, they can squabble and they can look weak defensively but there is always that sense of an expected fightback. The fightback came with the arrival of Carlos Tevez. Replacing a furious Mario Balotelli, who frustrated Mancini with an impetuous attempt at a back-heel, Tevez sparked City into life with a more direct attacking style that seemed essential in the their quest for recovery against a rampant United. Balotelli is a headline sweetheart, with the question this week clearly being: Should he have started instead of Carlos Tevez? Mancini has stated that Balotelli “needs to think about his job” which would perhaps suggest that it was indeed wrong to start him, perhaps even signalling an end to his chaotic spell at the Premier League champions.
With the arrival of Tevez, the match became a cantankerously exciting affair. 45 seconds of utter controversy threatened to swing the match in City’s favour as Ashley Young had what would have been a third goal disallowed for United, thrusting City to run straight up the other end and score through Yaya Toure. 2-1, with a third of the match remaining looked as though meaning a point at least for City. It looked as though it could have been three and not one as, much to United’s dismay, City equalised in 86th minute through an edge of the box drive from stand-in City captain Pablo Zabaleta- Vincent Kompany was replaced by Kolo Toure due to injury. The Etihad erupted, urging their team to complete a fantastic comeback and take all three points. The repercussions of a City win would have been borderline overwhelming for United fans. Another loss to City in the league, relinquishing their three-point advantage at the top and having to wait until April to enact revenge was unthinkable after Rooney had United 2-0 up.
The raucous finale that nobody envisaged unfolded before our very eyes. Robin Van Persie marked his Derby début with a deflected curling free-kick in the 92nd minute which won the match for United. Mancini dumbfounded, Zabaleta dejectedly hanging his ahead against the post in a reversal of emotions from six minutes previous and Tevez and Nasri entangled in a war on words painted the portrait of a team who were stunned in disbelief.
The football on the pitch was as pretty as the scenes from those attending was not. In the aftermath on United’s winner, Rio Ferdinand was struck above the eye with a coin and found himself the target of an angry pitch-invader who was decisively dealt with by Joe Hart. Carlos Tevez should have been sent off after kicking out at Phil Jones under the nose of his former boss Ferguson and Gareth Barry has now been charged with improper conduct after being found guilty of swearing at the referee. Tempers flared but the football flowed. At times it was the kind of roller-coaster thrill-ride everyone hopes to see in a local derby, Van Persie’s touch was sheer class while Wayne Rooney’s finishing was decisive and assured. There were positives for City as well, they looked dangerous in the second period under the midfield mastery of David Silva and the dogged work-rate of Tevez. End-to-end always makes for glorious television.
Van Persie delivered a killer blow to the team he had chosen not to join in the summer, instead writing his name into Manchester United folklore with a winner that could prove decisive in the long-run. The result leaves Manchester United in the driving seat with City walking into Saturday’s clash with Newcastle United at St. James’ Park with a ‘must-win’ mentality. The Premier League title race has hit full speed, with the red of Manchester in pole position.