It was perhaps the most anaemic Manchester derby in a generation, with City far too scared to lose and United not possessing the will to wrest the game from the cross-town neighbours. Arguably the most shocking aspect of the match though: Roberto Mancini’s total lack of attacking ambition in front of the Eastlands crowd.
This coming from a side whose designs on the top four is both immediate and highly funded.
Criticism, especially in the local press, has been widespread, with Mancini taking the brunt of media and supporter ire for an encounter that promising so much and delivered very little.
Billed by some, although not the clubs it must be said, as the most important Manchester derby ever, the match failed to deliver either entertainment or a statement of intent. It was a night of frustration, claimed United’s ‘keeper Edwin van der Sar.
“City did not really come forward and leave their defensive position,” United’s goalkeeper said.
“They were clearly aiming for a point whereas we really wanted to win. They were so defensive I didn’t have anything to do apart from [save] one free-kick.”
It’s hard to offer too loud a Bronx cheer though, despite City seemingly settling for a home draw. After all, Mancini is under extreme pressure to deliver fourth place and effectively no more in the current cycle. City’s ten-year plan – accelerated to two with Abu Dhabi’s wealth on tap – involves qualification for the Champions League this season and a final bout of expenditure before UEFA’s financial fair play regulations kick in next July.
In that, Mancini’s risk was far higher than Sir Alex Ferguson’s, whose team has been so blunted by injury, illness and under-investment this season. United, as Ferguson said, never set out to draw away from home, even if the Scot’s team failed to take any risks to force a victory. To not lose was effectively each side’s mantra.
Yet, for all the grand talk at City, the preoccupation with Wayne Rooney’s – failed for now – capture and the summer heavy spending, there was, for want of a better word, so little ambition on show. One wonders what Rooney, watching no doubt from his Nike World campus base, thought of it all?
After all the 25-year-old Scouse striker was basically happy to ink the five-year £260,000 a week deal offered by the Eastlands club. Supporter, PR and Ferguson’s pressure eventually told – at least for the short-term – but Rooney’s head was certainly turned.
City is not yet among Europe’s élite despite the Eastland’s bluster, although Mancini insisted after the game, somewhat disingenuously, that his side is now “on a level” with United. In terms of playing resources perhaps. In mentality his side possesses a distinct inferiority complex.
“I wanted to win this game, but sometimes it is better to draw than lose, like last year. But we played to win this game,” Mancini claimed last night.
“I think it was a difficult game for both teams, but we improved from last year because we didn’t concede a goal in the last minute.
“I think that when you play against United, if you don’t play well and give them a chance to score, they score.
“We didn’t create many chances, but last season we scored against them and lost three matches all in the last minute.”
Yet City cannot hope to win the Premier League setting up with three holding midfielders, despite the recent win over Chelsea. It is now arguable whether Mancini’s side even intends to challenge.
Indeed, with just three victories at Eastlands this season, City’s problem will come when the opposition fails to be drawn out of its defensive entrenchment. Much, it could be argued, as the Blues set out to achieve last night.
That said, next summer will provide a pivotal moment in both clubs development. Should the Blues qualify for the Champions League one final transfer market splurge may beckon before the club must balance the books.
Certainly the rampant over-confidence demonstrated by the club’s supporters will bring pressure to bear on both manager and owners to deliver a winning outfit sooner than later.
Meanwhile, United may still find it a challenge to keep Rooney at the club, despite the apparent promise from Joel Glazer to release the purse strings. United, with £160 million lodged in the clubs bank account but a looming £750 million debt, has seemingly promised to spend big in the coming summer window.
Few with any basic understanding of the club’s economics believe that is a viable long-term approach. Indeed, if retirements, under-investment and debt further weaken United’s resources then City may yet claim the crown of Manchester’s finest.
That day is not now. Certainly not with City’s inferiority complex so vivid. Rooney could do worse than to heed last night’s lesson.