United put the upstarts City in their place in a Manchester derby classic. It was a match full of drama, goals and plenty of hapless defending, with the winner coming from a former Liverpool hero. You couldn’t write a script this good. But as United fans filtered out of Old Trafford delirious with the result, Mark Hughes was busy ruining what little respect the red side of the city may have held for him.
For the neutral it was a match that had everything; most fans will have left with a few extra grey hairs. Three times United took the lead in normal time, only for City to peg Sir Alex Ferguson’s side back on as many occasions. While ‘plucky’ City can be pleased with their character in fighting to keep on terms, in truth the home side were vastly superior.
But for some truly awful defending – gifting City their first and third equalisers – United would have won at a canter. It was a point not lost on Ferguson after the game.
“We made three horrendous mistakes which you don’t even half associate with our team and it kept them in the game,” Fergie told Sky Sports after the match.
“I am unhappy about the goals we conceded because it spoilt [an otherwise] really emphatic victory – we could have scored six or seven.
“The fact that we made the mistakes probably made it the best derby game of all time so you-re left wondering, what would you rather have had – won 6-0 or won the greatest derby game of all time, and I would rather have won 6-0.”
Before all the drama, the derby came to life as early as the second minute, with Rooney holding off two City defenders to slot past Shay Given in the visitor’s goal. Patrice Evra created the chance, finding space on the left flank to cut back for United’s leading scorer. Magic.
City were back in it within a quarter hour, Ben Foster losing the ball to the returning Carlos Tevez, and Gareth Barry slotting home the little Argentinian’s pass. Comedy defending but it wasn’t funny for United’s number one. That Foster is still playing with such nerves six weeks into the new season is deeply worrying. Foster, talented though he is, got himself out of position on more than one occasion, gifting City their first equaliser. With Edwin van der Sar back inside a month, Foster has even more reason to feel under pressure.
United were dominating possession and the chances continued to flow, especially in the second period. Dimitar Berbatov in particular will regret not taking at least one of his four good opportunities before being substituted for Michael Owen.
United’s pressure was telling though and City’s expensively assembled central defensive partnership struggled all afternoon with United’s pace and movement. Ryan Giggs was utterly peerless, having a hand in all four United goals. At 35 years old, Giggs can still tear them apart after all these seasons. It was the Welshman’s running and passing that helped create a dozen chances for United in the second half.
In the end for all United’s free flowing attacking football City lost the match by defending set-pieces and crosses poorly. United’s second and third came from the unlikely head of Darren Fletcher, who had yet another storming game in central midfield.
In between Craig Bellemy twice pulled City back into the game. His first an outstanding strike from 25 yards, after cutting in from the left onto his favoured right boot. City’s third equaliser came with just seconds to go, Rio Ferdinand guilty of being lazy in possession and gifting the Bitters a chance at an undeserved point.
But as long as Ferguson lives and breaths United will continue to play until the final whistle. Giggs’ wonderful pass released Michael Owen in the 96th minute, the striker’s first touch was true and his neat finish sent the home crowd into raptures. Fergie’s Mourinhoesque arm-pumping dance down the touchline was bliss personified. His staff and substitutes invaded the pitch in an end reminiscent of that in the same stadium against Sheffield Wednesday in 1993.
In the post-match analysis Fergie couldn’t resist the opportunity to goad the defeated opposition.
“There has been a lot of expectation on Manchester City and with the spending they have done they have to win something,” Ferguson told Sky Sports.
“For us, it’s unusual for us to accept that they’re the top dogs in terms of media attention but you know, sometimes you have a noisy neighbour and have to live with it. You can’t do anything about them if they keep on making noise but what we can do, as we showed today, is you can get on with your life, put your television on and turn it up a bit louder.
“As far as the players are concerned, they showed their playing power and that’s the best answer of all.”
Watching despairing City supporters’ faces – still bitter after 34 years without silverware – as United’s fourth hits the back of the net was sheer poetry. That their team contained the returning Carlos Tevez iced the cake.
But another United old boy, the City manager Mark Hughes, was unable to lose with dignity, complaining about the amount of added time and United’s ecstatic reaction to the winning goal. Hughes also went on to defend Craig Bellamy, who hit out at a United fan, just as he had supported Emmanuel Adebayor’s in the wake of the striker’s deliberate stamp on Robin van Persie a week ago. Hughes should be bigger than that.
“They did seem quite excitable at the end of the game. It was reminiscent of Brian Kidd and Sir Alex in days gone by. And I saw Gary Neville running on like a lunatic as well, so it showed how much it meant to them,” said Hughes.
“It’s something we’ll take out of the game. We knew we could come here and compete against the United of today.”
Compete City did, but bitter City remain.