It just had to end like that, didn’t it? Two years ago, Wayne Rooney’s now iconic overhead kick made the difference for United. Last year, Vincent Kompany’s powerful header gave City the edge. And in yesterday’s Etihad version of the Manchester derby, it took an inspired stoppage-time free kick by Robin van Persie (aided by an out-to-sea Samir Nasri) to give United a 3-2 victory in a breathless encounter at Eastlands.
The match, one always circled at the beginning of the year as a fixture of the season, lived up to its hype featuring some moments of brilliance, questionable tactical choices and even a few instances of ugliness. Never, though, did the match lull into dullness and provided 90-plus minutes of entertainment and left several talking points for the rest of the season going forward.
While it was City who controlled the pace early on to start the match, United drew first blood thanks to the man who has scored more goals than anybody else in the history of the Manchester derby, Wayne Rooney.
After van Persie nicely chested down a bouncing ball and found Ashley Young, Young crossed the ball over to his England teammate and what happened next sort of played out in slow motion. Rooney cut across to the middle of the box and slotted a side foot towards goal past Gael Clichy and through the legs of Gareth Barry, who was a spectator for most of the afternoon. The ball had little pace on it, but England No. 1 Joe Hart, fooled by the shot, remained stationary on his line and could only watch as it trickled in the net in the 16th.
Could Hart have made that save if he had reacted sooner? Probably not, as the shot hugged the far post, but he simply did not respond to it at all. Even though his defenders should have done a better job to close down on Rooney and there might have been a bit of a screen from Clichy, the lack of effort here from the City ‘keeper cannot be excused. While it’s far too early to suggest that his spot as England’s first choice goalkeeper is in jeopardy, decisions like that one, as well as poor showings as of late like in the recent friendly against Sweden might have Three Lions manager Roy Hodgson, in attendance yesterday at the Etihad, perusing other options in the near future.
After Rooney’s opening salvo, United went on the front foot and were rewarded again near the half-hour mark, again from the Merseysider.
Like they did often in the first half, Antonio Valencia and Rafael came at Clichy down the wing with the Ecuadoran dropping off the ball to the Brazilian. Rafael, using van Persie’s run as a dummy, crossed to the middle of the area past Clichy and Sergio Aguero, to a trailing Rooney who slotted home for a first half brace and his 150th BPL goal. Hart, powerless on this instance to do anything, couldn’t have been too happy with some of his outfield players, especially Aguero and David Silva, who were guilty here of ball-watching. United would take their two-goal advantage to the break.
With City’s nearly two-year and 37-match home unbeaten streak at risk, Roberto Mancini, out-managed by Sir Alex Ferguson in the first half, needed to do something to enliven his side and he did so with the introduction of Carlos Tevez, a constant thorn in Ferguson and United’s side, for Mario Balotelli in the 50th.
While Aguero and Tevez have undoubtedly been the more fruitful pairing for City this season, Mancini made a surprise choice and handed a start to Balotelli for only the eighth time this season in any competition.
Balotelli did little to justify his manager’s faith, cutting an anonymous figure for most of his time on the pitch and squandering the couple of opportunities on net that he did have. An attempted back heel, with far too much cheek and not enough purpose from the Italian ended up being his last act of the match and emblematic of much of his season thus far. After being substituted, Balotelli went straight into the tunnel without shaking hands and wouldn’t reappear on the substitutes’ bench for more than 20 minutes. With constant rumours swirling throughout Italy about the interest in the player from a host of Serie A clubs, it wouldn’t be remotely shocking to see Balotelli depart back to his homeland during this transfer window or in the summer.
This roll of the dice from Mancini though was just the tonic needed for the Sky Blues, who once again began to control possession with Tevez on the pitch. Down two goals, the left and right backs, Clichy and Pablo Zabaleta, begin pressing forward thus forcing their United counterparts, Patrice Evra and Rafael, to retreat into more defensive positions, allowing City to control the attack.
City would pull one back on the hour, but not without some good fortune. Only a scant thirty seconds before Yaya Toure’s marker, United should have been up 3-0. Young, lively all match, turned in a van Persie effort off the post into an empty net, but was adjudged by the linesman to have been offside. Replays would show otherwise.
Still, that would be no excuse for the defending (or lack thereof) United would display immediately after the non-goal. David De Gea, in with Anders Lindegaard out for the birth of his child, made a pair of fine saves on Tevez followed by Silva, before Yaya, at the edge of the area, sent a low shot into the back of the net. City exploited some poor marking by United that allowed Yaya to get into the box unmolested with Rafael, in particular, scrambling on the play.
The goal lifted the spirits of players and fans alike, as the Etihad got loud in a hurry with City supporters convinced an equalizer was on the way. And they weren’t wrong.
With the Sky Blues continuing to threaten, it would be United’s old enemy, the set piece, that saw the two-goal lead squandered late.
Off of a Tevez corner, van Persie’s headed clearance made it no further than Zabaleta at the edge of the area where the Argentine international took a page out of Paul Scholes’s book and drove home low through Phil Jones’s legs in the 86th to send the blue side of Manchester into delirium.
With momentum clearly on their side, City began to press for a winner with a scant few minutes remaining in an attempt to snatch a famous victory against their hated cross-town rivals, but it wasn’t to be. No Ferguson-coached United side has ever lost after establishing a two-goal lead in the BPL and yesterday wouldn’t change that.
Deep into "Fergie Time", it would be United who grabbed the three points, but not without some help from City.
In the 92nd, Tevez clipped and on-rushing Rafael’s heels only a few yards shy of the area and a free kick was awarded by Martin Atkinson. As van Persie, the prolific striker who chose United over City during the summer, stood over the ball, City made its first of two crucial errors that helped lead to the United winner.
Rather than stay in the wall as initially instructed and create even less room for van Persie by the far corner, Tevez, the former United man, chose to walk towards the edge of the box to mark a stationary Wayne Rooney. This would prove to be a vital mistake.
Seconds later, it was Samir Nasri’s turn to aid the visitors. As van Persie made his left-footed effort to the far post, the French international inexplicably stuck his right foot high into the air, deflecting the shot past a diving Joe Hart to give United a late 3-2 victory. While van Persie’s strike was a sharp one, intervention from the City duo undoubtedly played a massive role in the Dutchman’s 11th league goal of the season.
Ugly scenes followed the goal. After coins had been thrown at Rooney prior to a corner in the first half, a projectile caught Rio Ferdinand underneath his left eye while celebrating the van Persie marker. Two men then invaded the pitch and one tried to get at Ferdinand, but was subdued by Hart before he could reach the defender. There will be a few sanctimonious voices decrying Manchester City fans today over these incidents, but let’s remember that they represent a very small, stupid minority and this type of "supporter" exists in every fan base.
While the police will deal with the nine men arrested at the match, the FA might want to deal with Tevez, who kicked at Phil Jones outside of the pitch as the two jostled at the touchline in the dying seconds. The Argentine’s frustration served as a perfect symbol of the disappointment that engulfed the City players and fans, as a point slipped away and the Red Devils took control of the title race.