If you were daft enough to think that the importance of tonight’s encounter was diluted by the 15-point gap that separated United and City before kick-off, feel free to take the night off and skip the netxt 600 or so words.
Despite all the talk of this being just “another game”, as United and City squared one another tonight, they both knew what was at stake. A last-gasp chance to retain the title, if you happen to be affected by Bluemonia, or an excellent opportunity to hammer the final nail in City’s coffin if you’re allegiances are coated in Red.
Twelve months ago, United and City faced each other on a Monday night and United’s attitude handed City the initiative and, ultimately, the Premier League title. Despite a line-up reading De Gea; Rafael, Rio, Jones, Evra; Young, Carrick, Giggs, Welbeck; Rooney, Van Persie, United fell into the same trap again tonight, as they set out to nullify City, rather than exploit their neighbours’ weaknesses.
A dull first half flew by, the only entertainment provided by the sight of wanna-be fans wearing half-and-half scarves. What is it with people desperately trying to endorse themselves to real fans by wearing those scarves? Those pieces of garments are bad enough during a normal game, worn at a derby they represent the equivalent of walking into a packed church waving a pack of condoms.
Scarves apart, United created almost nothing, apart from a Van Persie’s shot that fizzled wide of the post after eight minutes, until the stroke of half-time, when Rafael’s shot hit the upright after Carrick’s pass had been cushioned into the Brazilian’s path by Van Persie.
Six minutes into the second half and City were ahead, after Giggs’ back-heel pass was seized on by Gareth Barry and buried past David De Gea by James Milner, after Rafael had denied Nasri’s attempt. The fact that a player like James Milner could score in a game of such magnitude confirms that football is a funny old game, for how the former Leeds player keeps getting into this City team is a mystery likely to remain unsolved for a long time.
Six minutes later, United were level as Robin Van Persie’s free-kick looped over Joe Hart and against Phil Jones’ head before ricocheting against Vincent Kompany’s skull and into the back of the net. As Old Trafford erupted, the majority of fans would have expected United to go for the jugular and attack City, but the Reds retracted in their shell, inviting pressure from the Stockport brigade.
Ryan Giggs might have started his 37th Manchester derby today but it was hard to justify his inclusion as United, time and again, fell victim of Toure’s athleticism in the middle of the park. The Ivory Coast man was instrumental for his side with 78 minutes to go, as his pass found substitute Sergio Aguero who, after collecting his team-mate’s pass and stepping past Ferdinand and Jones, fired past David De Gea to give City a 2-1 lead.
United’s response was almost non-existent and City enjoyed their – deserved – second consecutive win at Old Trafford which brings them within 12 points of United. Undoubtedly, die hard Reds – the sort of fan who hasn’t attended a game in ages – and City fans will tell you that the title race is all but over anyway, but don’t believe them.
12 points clear, a team clearly far from its best form and last year’s ghost hanging over it all. Stoke away has suddenly become much more important than any of us would have liked it to be.