Remarkable the transformation. In six short months Sir Alex Ferguson’s side has metamorphosed from the timid outfit that lost so meekly to Manchester City at Eastlands in April, to an embolden challenger, outplaying the English champions on home turf this past Sunday. Indeed, Manchester United’s victory over Roberto Mancini’s outfit not only stretches the Reds’ Premier League lead to six points, but earns Ferguson plaudits for the turnaround in approach. It is a boost to confidence many had sought with only partial belief.
Fascinating too is the contradictory tension now liberated in the Blue quarter of Manchester, with goalkeeper Joe Hart and Mancini reportedly at loggerheads over Robin van Persie’s final-minute winner. The Dutchman’s curled free-kick found the bottom of the stoppers’ net much to the Mancini’s evident and vocal disgust.
In such games are titles won and lost; the beginning of a narrative that may come to characterise a season. This is even more evident given the dénouement of another dramatic Manchester derby, which brought a damaging loss for the hosts and a stunning victory for the visitors. It is, surely, a win that defines the current incarnation of Sir Alex’ side.
If it is the nature of victory that has proffered immeasurable confidence at Old Trafford then it is also the intensity of occasion that enabled sweet relief at the climax. After City’s 7-1 aggregate Premier League double last season, United simply had to gain something from this short trip across Manchester.
“We’ve done it to City in the past of course but this was special simply because they hadn’t lost at home for two years,” admitted a glowing Sir Alex in the aftermath.
“Both of us are contenders at the top of the league and it was an incredible game, you couldn’t take your eyes off it. The intensity, passion, competitiveness… everything was there.”
United’s hard work so nearly came to nothing after City fought from two goals down to draw level with minutes to spare. Had Ferguson’s side thrown away a lead to lose, as seemed the more likely scenario with 10 minutes to spare, then City’s supremacy would now be etched into this derby – a third straight Premier League victory.
The downbeat mood, had loss entailed, could also have been cast in controversy after officials’ incorrect decision to rule Ashley Young’s strike offside with United already two goals to the good.
“You’ve got to give credit to City for the way they keep going and for scoring late goals,” said Ferguson.
“City kept fighting, they kept battling and they’ve got this great record of scoring late goals. City scored a second goal and they deserved it. At that point, you’re saying to yourself, ‘I’ll take the draw.’ But up to that point, I thought we were far better than them.
“Fortunately we got the last one that counted. You know Robin’s capable of that. It took a little deflection but it was a wicked hit and I’m really delighted it’s flown in.”
Sweeter still for the Red majority that it should be van Persie who scored United’s winner. Salt in a City’s wound after the Dutchman reportedly turned down the Blues’ £300,000 per week contract offer last summer. For the greater glory, said the 29-year-old striker – another defining moment in an increasingly tense relationship between these two clubs.
Meanwhile, over at Eastlands the recriminations are still being felt more than 48 hours after the game’s conclusion. Tension between Hart and Mancini, exposed after City’s 3-2 loss to Real Madrid last month, has bubbled to the surface again.
There has also been widespread criticism of Samir Nasri; the Frenchman’s dive behind Hart’s wall and petulant flick of the leg enabling van Persie’s shot to deflect past the England ‘keeper.
And then there is Mario Balotelli, whose performance of casual ineptitude made a mockery of Mancini’s decision to bench both Carlos Tevez and the free-scoring Bosnian forward Edin Džeko. The multi-talented Italian striker has the quality to win key matches, but rarely the temperament to bring it to the fore.
“It is a bad feeling at this moment, when you lose a derby in the last seconds, but the manager should do his choice properly,” said Mancini, who is under increasing pressure after failure in Europe.
“I decided to play with Mario because he could cause a problem for their defenders. I wanted to wait to see if Mario could play well in the second half. But after five minutes, I saw he played like he played in the first half and I didn’t want this. It is important for him to start to think about his job. I saw players like that in my life with fantastic quality and end up with nothing, but I don’t want this for him.”
Mancini is now left in an invidious position having spent around £100 million on Tevez, Džeko and Ballotelli, but seemingly unable to trust the trio. Even Sergio Agüero, it seems, has gone off the boil this season having scored seven times in 15 matches this season.
More proof, if required, that while City’s billion pound investment has brought trophies and glory to a formerly decaying club, retaining pre-eminancy remains the toughest job in professional sport.
Indeed, while Abu Dhabi has not the heart to sack Mancini this winter – a change of horses in mid-stream that would only increase instability – it will take a remarkable turnaround in the club’s fortunes for the Italian to last beyond next summer. Not with Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho likely to be available.
If defeat has served to highlight deficiencies in Mancini’s squad and approach then it has also masked, temporarily at least, United’s weaknesses. Once again Ferguson’s side conceded freely – largely due to a bold open approach that is rewarded with points and goals, but offers little security at the back.
Six points is a healthy lead heading into the Christmas programme, but one that can also erode quickly if United adds to the five defeats already suffered this season.
Yet, there was handsome reward for Ferguson’s recognition that United could gain little by retrenching into the defensive mentality of last spring’s defeat at Eastlands. United sought victory and came away with the spoils.
After all the Scot’s selection could have included ‘safe’ experience in Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Anders Lindegaard. In past times Park Ji-Sung would almost certainly have played.
Instead, Ferguson’s decision to entrust Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley and David de Gea speaks clearly to the change of mentality since April.