Manchester United took a giant stride towards the title with a dramatic 3-2 win away to local and title rivals, Man City.
A quiet winter Sunday afternoon, settle down in the living room reading the Sunday paper with a small open fire to gently heat things up.
Well, things did heat up in Manchester, but not so calmly, as the city’s two fierce rivals came face-to-face for the first time since that unforgettable day in May, when Sergio Agueroalmost gave Martin Tyler a heart attack in commentary with the latest of late winners on the final day – etching Man City’s name on the Premier League trophy.
However, City hadn’t much to shout about over their neighbors in the more immediate future, as they came into the contest three-points adrift of United and, more painfully, completely out of Europe before Christmas. United, on the other hand, were so comfortable in the Champions League group stages they were able to field reserves in the final two games.
Sir Alex Ferguson did not see this as an advantage coming into the game or for the rest of the season, in fact he see it as the complete opposite (or so he said) as he labelled City the favourites for the title. Roberto Mancini, much like Ferguson, also decided to lift some of the pressure off his players by calling the opponents favorite – mind games galore, but when Sir Alex is involved, there’s only one winner.
Drawing closer to kick-off and it was clear that Mancini was willing to do things completely outside the realms of sanity in order to claim a massive win against The Red Devils – naming the unpredictable Mario Balotelli in the starting line-up. As if this top of the table heavyweight clash needed an extra fuse, Mancini opts for a package of T.N.T. not even Wile E. Coyote would dare to touch.
The stage is set, the fans are loud and the tension is fierce, referee Martin Atkinson blows his whistle and the city comes to a standstill – kick-off in the Manchester Derby.
Man City dominated the game for the opening 15-minutes with much of the play in the final third in front of David De Gea, playing instead of Anders Lindegaard who was absent due to his partner going into labour.
Balotelli and Aguero, Mancini’s chosen weapons, seemed to be causing early danger – forcing De Gea into a number of saves. The start that City had been hoping for, it was surely a matter of time before the deadlock was broken, and it was.
Not by City though. Completely against the run of play, United broke down the field with Ashley Young who passed the ball to Wayne Rooney, and, after controlling the ball, trickles his shot between two City defenders into the bottom right-hand corner of the goal. Joe Hart completely wrong-footed from a shot that still looks like it’s being replayed in slow-motion when on fast-forward.
1-0 United. City stunned and it was only getting worse for the hosts as Vincent Kompanywas forced off with injury and replaced by Kolo Toure. On the half-hour mark, Rooney doubled the advantage, this time taking advantage of a cut-back from the right-hand side from Rafael just outside the six-yard box and slotting the ball home.
City rattled, United cruising and, as it stood, a four-goal swing giving United a six-point and three-goal advantage in the table – the half-time whistle much welcomed by the home side in serious need of regrouping.
Just seven-minutes into the second-half, the almost inevitable happened – a Balotelli moment.
Mancini, angered by the flamboyant striker raking his studs on Rio Ferdinand, immediately called upon Carlos Tevez to warm-up and get on. Following his substitution, Balotelli stropped down the tunnel without any acknowledgement to his teammates. He did later make an appearance in the City technical area to show support to his team.
As the amateur-dramatics unfolded, United were pressing to kill off the game with a third and really rub their rivals noses in it, and they would have, if not for a wrong call just short of the hour-mark.Young deemed offside by the linesman as he converted Van Persie’s rebounded shot off the woodwork – television replays clearly showing Man United quite rightly felt hard done by.
Just imagine the uproar if City then went up the other end and scored. Even equalise. You didn’t have to. Yaya Toure broke De Gea’s heart after a fine double-save, finally beating the young Spaniard to give City a foothold in a game they should have been out of just a minute before.
City rallied for the next 25-minutes pushing for a body-blow of an equaliser. Enter Pablo Zabaleta. City crossed the ball in from a corner and it fell to the Argentinian right-back on the edge of the area, drilling the ball through the crowd of players to pull the hosts level. Insane.
The home fans rubbing their visitors’ noses in the fact they squandered a two-goal lead (should have been three) and with it landing a huge mental blow saying they will not be beaten (undefeated at home for almost two-years).
It looked as though another huge derby was going to finish all-square with the points shared. No. This is the Premier League, and just as City inflicted pain on United in injury time in May, United would do just that – arise, Robin van Persie.
He’s only been at United a few months and he’s already been their saviour on a number of occasions – this by far his biggest one yet.
A free-kick conceded by Gael Clichy towards the right-hand side. Van Persie lined it up; Rafael also looking interested asked the Dutchman, “What are you going to do?” Van Persie replied simply with, “I think I’ll shoot.”
He did. His shot deflecting off the cowering Samir Nasri’s boot and into the bottom corner of the net past Joe Hart’s glove. A shot as big as the one Juan Manuel Marquez delivered to Manny Pacquiao in term of the title race as United claimed a 3-2 win to go six-points clear before Christmas.
Unfortunately, the talking points don’t end there, as a small minority of City ‘supporters’ threw coins – one of which hitting Ferdinand causing the former England captain to require medical attention just above his eye. Plaudits must go out to Joe Hart as he fended off a mindless idiot attempting to confront Ferdinand on the pitch.
Later that day it was great to see Ferdinand and van Persie with Man City goalkeeper, Joe Hart, at ITV’s The X Factor final – hopefully the reprimanded “fans” will have seen the two sets of players getting on with it just hours after the dramatic clash.