Derby day. A date always looked upon as a day with extra meaning in the football calendar. Where rivalries are thrust into the spotlight, and matches prove unpredictable in their nature. With Manchester City emerging as a significant competitor in the Premier League, the Manchester Derby has taken on a sense of greater importance.
After City’s early exit from the Champion’s League and the painful memory of last season’s drama for United fans, many pointed to this fixture as one that may be looked back on down the line as one that had a big impact on the title race. For now though, despite the hype, it is too early to tell, as leads and gaps fluctuate as the season progresses. With such anticipation, there were twists to be found prior to the match, with Sir Alex Ferguson having Antonio Valencia and Tom Cleverley available at the Etihad, much to the surprise of the fans. Indeed, United lined up in their more traditional formation, with David De Gea in goal, with Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans in front of him. Rafael Da Silva, sporting a new haircut, was to be found at right back and Patrice Evra on the left. In midfield, the aforementioned Cleverley lined up with Michael Carrick, with Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young occupying the wings. Finally, up front, saw Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie.
The game kicked off with City quickly finding their way in the game, with the visitors sitting deep and under pressure from early on. The early statistics showed this, with City enjoying 75% of possession early on, with United barely able to get clear and the ball easily finding it’s way back to the home side. United themselves were not broken down easily, although there were danger signs at times as they tried to settle into the game. With 15 minutes gone, and United struggling, David De Gea collected the ball and rolled it out to Evra, who played a ball out to Ashley Young, who combined well with Van Persie to break forward, resulting in a pass from the left to Rooney, and taking a couple of touches side footed a shot along the ground, going through two defenders and slowly nestling in Hart’s right corner to give United a 0-1 lead, against the run of play.
A couple of minutes later, Kompany was withdrawn from the game, replaced by Kolo Toure. United, boosted by their goal, were matching up to the home side more, and with just under half an hour gone, Rafael played a low ball into the box from the right, finding Rooney in the box who finished into the same area of the net as the first to give United a 0-2 lead.
The half concluded with both sides threatening up front, with United ending the half far better than the way they started, going in at half time 0-2, and the need to protect that lead at the forefront of priorities.
The second half began with early substitutions, with Jonny Evans, looking to be carrying an injury, replaced by Chris Smalling, soon after followed by the replacement of Balotelli with Tevez for City. This time in the game saw City again on the ascendancy, pushing forward and applying pressure to the United back line. However, with just under an hour gone, United were denied a third goal, with Van Persie coming in from the left and curling an effort at goal that came off the bar, met by Young who put the ball in the net but was called back for offside. Replays showed that Young was in fact, onside. Almost immediately after, City piled forward, with play that culminated in De Gea pulling off a double save to deny the hosts, but with United failing to clear, Yaya Toure fired in from just inside the box into the same corner of the net that United had done in the first half.
1-2 and all to play for. The home side continued to press forward, with the visitors getting forward less frequently. Silva came close, with De Gea denying him without realising as the shot came off his shoulder. United looked panicked at times but held on as the game approached the final 10 minutes. Yaya Toure was replaced by Dzeko, and Valencia departed for Phil Jones as the game neared its conclusion.
With under 5 minutes remaining, City won a corner which United failed to deal with appropriately, and as the ball came out of the area, Zabaleta burst in to fire on the half volley to beat De Gea in the bottom right corner again. 2-2. Sir Alex went for a final change, bringing on Welbeck for Cleverley. The action did not stop, with Silva forcing De Gea into a low save. With 2 minutes of injury time remaining, Rafael was brought down by Tevez on the right, near the edge of the box.
Van Persie and Rooney discussed their options as Hart lined up the 3 man City wall. Van Persie eventually lined up, and struck a low curling shot, with Samir Nasri sticking out a leg, the ball took a deflection, diverted in it’s path towards Hart’s bottom right corner, beating the post and nestling in the net. 2-3 and United fans in a state of euphoria in the dying moments of the game.
United held on, seeing the game out 2-3, but the finish was marred by ugly scenes, most notably with Rio Ferdinand struck by a coin as he celebrated the goal, causing a cut just above his left eye. Unnecessary actions to end a thrilling Manchester Derby.
With that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) Unexpected inclusions, a positive set up and clinical finishing
It would be fair to say, given the midfield “injury crisis” talked about during the week, that fans were relieved and pleasantly surprised when both Antonio Valencia and Tom Cleverley were announced fit to start against City, not long before kick off. This meant that United went with their more traditional 4-4-2 set up, with a look to using pace and width and take on a more attacking mindset, in stark contrast to last season’s trip to the Etihad when Sir Alex’s side looked as though they were playing for a draw.
On this occasion, United set up quite deep, trying to cope with the pressure that City were applying, particularly early on and at times in the second half. Indeed, United were very much on the back foot to begin with, and their goal came against the run of play. However, that is where their success laid. They held off City in the early stages and broke with pace when they got the chance, when Young flicked on to Van Persie before Young eventually passed for Rooney. it was a very quick move and gave United a lead completely out of the blue.
In fact, United only had the 3 shots on target the whole game, with those being the goals and should have been 0-3 up in the second half after Young was incorrectly ruled offside.
It looked as though City’s attacking threat had finally paid off for them when Zabaleta impressively equalised late on, until Van Persie stepped up and his free kick took a fortunate deflection to give his side the winner.
What impressed was the effort put in across the whole side, with everyone playing their part and sticking to a game plan that they executed well.
2) What Ashley Young is capable of
Since returning from injury, and indeed at times since joining United, Ashley Young has not been universally acclaimed. In fact, recently his performances have gathered criticism, with many questioning whether he is good enough to be in the side. This would be fair, as a problem that the wings have had recently. However, on Sunday, we saw what Young can do with more consistency. Down the left side, he had energy and was effective going forward, playing a pivotal role in the first goal and was unlucky not to be awarded one himself.
3) Van Persie – contributing important goals
One thing that Van Persie could not be accused of is contributing goals that have no bearing on a game at all. So many times already this season he has scored when United have needed it most, and Sunday was no different with his last minute deflected winner from his free kick. Due to the way the game went, with City spending periods of the game in possession pushing for a goal, the Dutchman spent some time rather quiet. However, he kept reminding fans that he was not forgotten in the game, nearly scoring just before City’s first with a curling effort that came off the bar. He was also involved in the play for United’s first.
The way he has settled into the side is made all the more impressive by the way in which other big name signings have struggled at other sides, but he has arrived and contributed many goals when it counts, and is an important factor in United’s place at the top of the table currently.
4) David De Gea – the rightful number 1
Defensively, United looked far better than the disastrous outing that was the trip to Reading the previous week. On this occasion they held off City’s advances well, although the home side were certainly threatening and came close more than once before getting a goal back. United still had problems with clearing, there were times they could have just got the ball clear but failed to deal with the problem, such as with Yaya Toure’s goal.
Regardless, mention should be given to De Gea’s performance on Sunday. The Spaniard was a big factor in keeping City out for much of the game. When shots came in low, he held the ball well and set the ball in motion for United’s opener. In the build up to Toure’s goal he made a fantastic double save before the ball came out for Toure to finally beat him.
With crosses, he took greater command, punching well when he saw the chance. Although occasionally, there was a communication issue between him and Smalling, fans are seeing a continued development in the young goalkeeper. What is needed, is for De Gea to have a long run in Premier League games, to establish himself more effectively within the United back line and contribute to a defence of greater stability.
5) A thrilling encounter, marred by ugly scenes
It is a shame, that when a game is played with such pace and quality, that it must be let down by a small minority that cannot handle the atmosphere and do something foolish to spoil the occasion. In this case, when Ferdinand was celebrating the winner, he was struck with a coin in the face. In the same instance, an angry spectator came on to the pitch, restrained by Joe Hart. It is not something that is just confined to this game, or these “fans”, but one must wonder why somebody could lose their sense of control at a football match, to the point they throw objects or feel the need to invade the pitch. Be it scenes like these, or vulgar chants, it detracts from the game itself, which in this case was something to be looked upon in high regard.
It was an unpleasant end to a game that had entertained throughout. With barely a pause in the pace both sides provided a fine advert for the Premier League, in front of A-List celebrity guests on the day. As one would expect tensions ran high between both sides at times, and this was not aided by the poor refereeing on the day, with strange decisions on both sides, be it Young disallowed a goal, or when play was pulled back to book Rooney when Toure was keen to play advantage after his late tackle. However, this was merely a part of the full drama that the game represented as a classic Derby Day occasion, and time time, it was the United fans who went home happier, ultimately proving the more clinical on the day.