A match that needed no build up, built up to an hyperbolic extent. The game that many believed would have huge implications for where the title may end up this season. Indeed, with United giving up 5 of their 8 point lead in recent games against Wigan and Everton, the stage was set for Manchester City and Manchester United to battle it out for advantage going into the final two games of the season. Despite having the advantage on points, it was City who had the goal difference in their favour, meaning a win for them would see them go top of the table, with United requiring a draw or, better, a win.
Sir Alex Ferguson opted for a different line up going into the fixture, starting with David De Gea in goal, Evans was ruled out and Chris Smalling taking his place alongside Rio Ferdinand. On the right was Phil Jones and out left was Patrice Evra. A five man midfield was preferred on this occasion, indicating a cautious approach to the game. This included Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Park Ji-Sung and Nani. Up front, Wayne Rooney was the lone striker.
The game kicked off with United looking to assert themselves early on, piling on the early pressure against a nervy home side that took time to settle into the occasion. With an electric atmosphere the game was all set for drama and fireworks. However, the early pace that United played from the start fell back as City found their feet and began to take possession more themselves. After a quarter of an hour, it was the home side that were having the bulk of the ball, with the visitors merely trying to contain them, particularly down the middle as City struggled to find a way through. As the half wore on, the warning signs began to show, as gaps were being found as Mancini’s men took control. However, United were able to repel much of what they brought forward, with much of the play put centrally. Of course, when such pressure is placed and with little sign of a counter attack being made, it was the United fans that will have been the more concerned of the two sets. With half time looming, and David De Gea finding himself untested for much of the half, it looked as though the interval would be brought in with the scores level.
Injury time, and City get a corner on the right. A dangerous cross is played in, with Kompany beating his marker to head his side into the lead. 1-0 on the stroke of half time, and the noise level at the Etihad is suddenly ramped up, with City deservedly taking the lead. The second half kicked off with both sides unchanged. United looked to play with a greater tempo from the off, with Nani forcing a corner in the opening exchanges. However, the home side soon settled into the game again, and began to take control of possession. For large periods United did not look a side chasing the game as the opposition looked comfortable on the ball. At times the match threatened to boil over, with tensions running high, particularly between the two managers, but the referee in charge did well to keep both sets of players in line, refusing to book players often and allowing play to flow.
Realising that the system was not producing anything noteworthy, changes were made. First, Park made way for Welbeck and Valencia and Young replacing Scholes and Nani respectively later on. Although these changes seemed to spark some life back into the side as the game approached the final stages, they failed to trouble the home side’s back line, as Nasri came closest to adding another goal to the game, his hesitancy his own fault. And so it remained, with United ineffectual in chasing the game in the final stages, City saw out the game comfortably at 1-0, taking top spot in the league on goal difference , with only two games remaining. Although not over, the odds are certainly in their favour once again. Here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) City were deserving of their victory
I believe it goes without saying that City were by far the better side on the occasion. After their early nerves had settled, they were able to play the game the way they wanted with United unable to make anything of the ball when they had possession. The likes of Nasri and Aguero looked particularly threatening, with Toure also showing potential for danger during the game. In the first half, they came up against a United back line looking to contain them, but for all their possession they eventually made it count, with Kompany doing well to get in and head well at goal to give his side the lead, and ultimately provide his team with a crucial 3 points that could well decide the title race. In truth, they perhaps did not test De Gea as much as they would have liked, but given that United failed to test Hart at all, means they will have been satisfied with their efforts, and having come away with victory is all that would have mattered.
2) The tactics failed
When the team sheet became known, many fans believed Ferguson set his side up looking for a draw. With a five man midfield it was clear the objective was to try to contain them and dominate the centre of the park to prevent them getting forward, allowing his side to keep possession. However, it is fair to say many fans’ reservations appeared justified, as United laboured for much of the game. With the likes of Valencia, Welbeck and Young not starting, players who have been instrumental in victories as of late, it seemed baffling that the side had been set up to play so cautiously. After the careless way in which the lead had been thrown away against Everton last week, the formation may have been understandable but it was clear early on that it was not working. That said, changes that were made did little to change the direction the match was heading in, perhaps a case of too little too late, or that it was simply not to be.
3) Park’s selection backfired
When the name Park became clear on the team sheet prior to kick off, undoubtedly there will have been a few groans from some of the United faithful, perplexed as to why he had been picked with some believing he has been ineffective when called upon this season. In truth, for a player that has seen little action in recent weeks, one finds it hard to justify why he was picked to play in central midfield, perhaps emphasising a lack of options as back up in that area. One must acknowledge that Park has been used well in a five man midfield in the past, a player who’s versatility and energy has proven a useful asset in competition. However, against City it became clear that he struggled to get a foothold in the match, seemingly pass the ball on as quickly as possible as soon as it got to him and almost looking lost, despite his efforts. However, to male a scapegoat of the Korean midfielder when he did not play all of the match would be unjust, given that the team performance as a whole was well below par.
4) A performance that mirrored the Wigan match
Before last week’s rather open affair against Everton, United suffered a 1-0 loss at the hands of Wigan, a game in which they looked flat, blunted and failed to register a shot on target. Fast forward to Monday night’s game against City, and proceedings appeared very similar. Once again, United failed to register a single shot on target, and in a game which is considered crucial to a title race, this simply is not good enough. For all City’s dominance, United struggled to respond, delivering a rather deflated performance that did not have the look of a side desperate to chase the game, failing to challenge the home side’s back four as the minutes counted down and defeat loomed. Rooney cut a frustrated figure, misplacing passes himself as well as not receiving the service required to have an effect up front and Giggs struggled to make a mark in midfield. In fact the midfield simply did not come together as expected, with nobody truly coming to the fore and producing something worthwhile to test the defences. Although changes sparked short periods of action, in all the game became rather comfortable for City, in a match that ultimately did not live up to the hype that had surrounded it beforehand.
5) Decided on goal difference?
Indeed as it was when 8 points clear and apparently coasting, the title race is not over until it is no longer possible to win it. However, City’s superior goal difference has been made to count, and with two games remaining, the outcome rests with them, with United requiring either Newcastle or Queens Park Rangers to get a result from them, upon which Ferguson’s men will need to capitalise. In a season where there have been dramatic twists and turns throughout, one cannot rule out the possibility of this happening one last time, but it is clearly where the advantage lays as the season draws to a close.