It what was billed as an absolute classic, a tense Manchester derby had one team who wanted to win it and another who didn’t want to lose it
With the crucial 1-0 victory over Manchester United at the Etihad stadium on Monday evening, Manchester City climbed once more to the summit of the Premier League after a brief two-month stint in second place. When a lead of nearly ten points was eroded by United and when they themselves had established an eight point lead at the helm of the Premier League, it looked as though the title race was as good as over. City boss Roberto Mancini was certainly of that opinion, even when his side was clawing itself back into contention over the past few weeks.
Going into this game, United had looked both vulnerable and complacent in recent fixtures, as the away defeat to Wigan Athletic and the remarkable 4-4 draw with Everton proved. Whilst both of those teams rightly gained deserved plaudits and credit for their respective performances, United showed signs of weakness that ultimately cost them dearly. Against Wigan, United came up against a very determined side who played some fabulous football, with passing movement and speed of play that their manager, Roberto Martinez, has always endeavoured to play with his teams. The greater warning signs came against Everton last weekend, where United sacrificed two goal margins with the scores both at 3-1 and 4-2, with slack and messy defending granting the Merseyside club the opportunity to apply some clinical finishing through Nikica Jelavic, Marouane Fellaini and Steven Pienaar to complete a remarkable 4-4 comeback.
And so, as this 163rd Manchester derby came and went, so did the initiative for the Premier League title race as it swung back from the red half of Manchester to the blue half. In my view on the night, all this boiled down to one simple fact: one team in blue was set up to win the game, whilst another team in red were set up not to lose it.
In the past, City manager Roberto Mancini has been somewhat criticised for supposedly negative tactics in the bigger games. Last season’s away trip to Arsenal’s Emirates stadium was a prime example of this, as was the second half of this season’s curtain raiser at Wembley, the Community Shield, bringing on Gareth Barry for the erratic Mario Balotelli just after United had equalised in the 59th minute. These are decisions that were as bewildering as they are inexplicable, for a team blessed with so much finances and so much attacking talent.
On Monday night, however, the boot was firmly on the other foot. For the most part, City were the team that went out and wanted to win this match, whereas United looked to be a side that was set up not to lose the game. The fact that United failed to muster a single shot on target all evening long – an unwanted feat last achieved in a league game three years – speaks volumes of how poor the champions played at the Etihad stadium.
A conservative and cautious team selection from Sir Alex Ferguson saw Wayne Rooney deployed as a lone striker in, effectively, a 4-5-1 formation. But all too often, the England striker found himself isolated and frustrated through a lack of support for the entire first half and some of the second period. Park Ji-Sung, often a tireless midfielder with bundles of energy and harasses opposition players in the bigger games, had one of his most anonymous games in a red shirt. All too late, players that should have started in the form of Danny Welbeck and particularly the brilliant Antonio Valencia, came off the substitutes bench to try and break down a City team that had already got what they had came to work for. Nigel De Jong was thrown into the breach for Carlos Tevez, who had a quiet night against his former club, to help protect the slender lead City had and made for a nerve-wracking final 20 minutes. But the damage had already been done – with notably outstanding performances from captain Vincent Kompany, the under-rated and useful Pablo Zabaleta, and the quite brilliant and marauding Yaya Toure - and City unquestionably now have the initiative in this enthralling and intriguing title race as we enter the home stretch of the marathon.
Observers and critics will point to the fact that City still have a very difficult away game against a Newcastle United side that is determined and pushing for Champions League football, as well as relegation threatened QPR with a certain Mark Hughes returning to the Etihad, but it also beyond question that this title is now City’s to lose. Although not ahead on points, their vastly superior goal difference effectively gives them a one point advantage going into the final two games of this captivating and memorable season.
United meanwhile have a home game against Swansea City and a tough away trip to the north east to play Sunderland at the Stadium of Light on the final day of the season. Whilst it may be seen that this is a slightly easier run-in – Roberto Mancini certainly seems to think so – the fact of the matter is that Sir Alex Ferguson allowed caution and negativity to slip into his meticulous preparations for this game, and that showed in both the starting line-up and the performance on the pitch. United had the opportunity to put the title to bed, but instead lifted up the covers and allowed City to cuddle up nice and tight to the Premier League trophy, and the initiative is now firmly with the blue half of Manchester as we approach this season’s finale.