The Dutchman produced his most Cantona-esque moment to date to send United six points clear at the top of the table after City clawed their way back from two goals down and looked to have snatched a late draw through Pablo Zabaleta’s smart finish.
It had been hailed as the biggest Manchester derby ever, the game where champions Manchester City would confirm the shift in power that’s long been talked about in the blue half of Manchester.
It was a typical Mancunian derby indeed. Only it was painted red and the last stroke of them all will live long in the memory of both sets of fans for it was applied by the player who divided the city in the summer.
The pre-match columns had been awash with references to City’s unbeaten run and United’s poor defensive form, but Fergie surprised media and fans alike by fielding an offensive side, arguably the best XI at his disposal – bar the injured Vidic and Kagawa.
United had travelled to this same venue in April with a disconcertingly timid approach, miles away from the club’s “blood and thunder” philosophy but there was none of it this time, with De Gea in goal, protected by the usual back four and with Cleverley and Valencia thrusted in midfield alongside Carrick and Young, while Rooney and Van Persie were the obvious choices up front.
After the home fans’ half-hearted attempt at waving plastic flags – does anybody still consider City as the romantic response to multimillionaire’s football? – the home side were quickly on top, dominating United in midfield but failed to create any clear cut chances, apart from a Balotelli free-kick that was comfortably saved by De Gea.
Sir Alex had hailed Wayne Rooney as a potential game changer and the United number 10 confirmed his manager’s theory with 15 minutes played.
Ashley Young’s flick-on found Robin Van Persie, who chested the ball back to the former Villa man, allowing him to run at City’s back four.
Young’s pass found Rooney who brilliantly adjusted his feet before squeezing the ball past Joe Hart to give United the lead.
City were rattled but went close to equalise less than seven minutes later as Aguero worked his way through three tackles but his finish lacked the power to trouble De Gea. Those that expected a City onslaught were soon to be denied as United hit the hosts again.
Valencia and Rafael combined on the flank, the Ecuadorian’s pass releasing his younger teammate who squared the ball for back for Wayne Rooney. The Liverpool born striker made no mistake, nestling the ball past Joe Hart to secure his second brace in the last three games at the Etihad and, perhaps more importantly, his 150th Premier League goal.
Not for the first time this season City looked in trouble with the opponent taking the game at them, just as United were doing with Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley delivering superb performances in midfield, and could only muster a chance before halftime, as Gareth Barry saw his shot fizzle past De Gea’s near post.
Smalling and Tevez replaced Evans and Balotelli early in the second half, before three of the most pyrotechnic minutes of the season. With 57 minutes played, Aguero’s curling effort whiskered just wide of De Gea’s goal then, sixty seconds later, Van Persie’s curled one of his own only to see it crashing against the post. Ashley Young thought he had put United three up as he tapped in the rebound, only to be denied by the linesman who had – wrongly – adjudged him offside.
The game was blown back open less than minute later as City broke down the right, only for Tevez’s effort to be brilliantly blocked by De Gea.
Silva’s follow-up was again blocked by the United keeper but even he could nothing about Toure’s precise finish, that sent the ball in the bottom corner bringing City back into the game.
With City piling on the pressure, United defended admirably as Smalling, Evra and Ferdinand were superb to deny Aguero, Silva and Tevez.
Van Persie couldn’t direct his header and City looked to have produced the last twist of the game when Zabaleta drove home a poor clearance following a Tevez’s corner.
With their unbeaten home record seemingly intact, the home side pressed for the winner but when substitute Danny Welbeck chased and won the ball down in City’s half and Rafael was brought down by Tevez, United were gifted a last, perhaps unexpected chance.
Robin Van Persie didn’t let his club down arrowing his free-kick into the far corner – albeit via a deflection off Samir Nasri – to send the away fans berserk as United celebrated yet another derby win in injury time.
Despicable scenes followed as Rio Ferdinand’s celebrations were cut short when he was hit by a coin thrown from a City fan while Joe Hart stopped another loony from assaulting the United defender.
However, one can’t blame the fans….chucking money at players has been City’s policy over the last four years – they were just following the club’s guidelines.
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