City delivers huge statement to United
After all those long years and the pain of trying not to watch as United devoured trophy after trophy, City are doing everything they can to burst out of the shadows. This was billed as the most important Manchester derby of them all. Although the game itself was more compelling for its tension than its theatre, the result resounds through English football. Roberto Mancini’s team returns to the top of the Barclays Premier League. The title is back in their hands. The prize is in sight.
Amidst the euphoria Monday night at Etihad Stadium, with match-winning captain Vincent Kompany visibly moved as he talked about his childhood dreams, City’s head coach could not bring himself to admit his team are bearing down on the finish line. He might be trying to convince people that United are still the favorites, but the resigned look on Sir Alex Ferguson’s face as he pondered a question about whether the title was slipping away spoke volumes. As a banner in the stands politely read, “The noisy neighbors are getting louder, Alex.”
For all the crazy box scores in this most unpredictable of seasons and after the seven goals that marked the most remarkable of Manchester derbies earlier in the season when City won 6-1 at Old Trafford, one solitary goal was all that was needed to underline how this rivalry has been transformed: from something that resembled an afterthought from a United perspective to a deeply concerning threat. City were never really troubled. Most of the pressure they felt came from the occasion, not the opposition.
During a tense first half in which the pace was ferocious and filled with strong defending, City gradually pushed United to the back foot. One minute into stoppage time, they earned the advantage.
Kompany, who has been a rock for City this season, seized the moment. David Silva whipped in a perfect corner kick, and Kompany made his run like a man possessed. His marker, Chris Smalling, erred at the worst possible moment when he snuck forward and lost his chance to make a claim for the ball. Kompany belted his header into the net and ran off in fist-pumping celebration. “I remember someone texting me and saying I would score, and I thought he was a lunatic,” he said later with a grin.
Kompany had been the victim of an undeserved red card when these teams met in the FA Cup earlier in the season. Having the chance to make the difference here evidently meant so much to him.
There was a telling moment in the 76th minute, when Nigel de Jong chopped down Danny Welbeck. The temperature was raised in the managers’ dugouts. Tempers boiled over as Ferguson and Mancini bickered and gestured at each other. No love lost there. It was, in its own way, recognition of how the relationship between the two clubs has changed. Not many take on Ferguson as an equal — certainly not any of City’s past managers. Mancini, backed by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s petrodollars, has gone eyeball to eyeball with Ferguson this season in every way.
From Joe Hart in goal to the workaholic defenders, through the impetus epitomized by Yaya Toure in midfield, and up to the nimble forwards in attack, City have emerged as a team to be reckoned with. The chairman had popped in to see the players before kickoff and told them how proud he was of them regardless, and how much he believed in the dynasty they are trying to build at the club.
That is not to say that they don’t desperately want to achieve everything as quickly as humanly possible. With that in mind, there was anxiety when Samir Nasri should have finished things off with a minute to go but was blocked off by Phil Jones. The Frenchman beat the turf with frustration. Might United come up with one of their late specials?
Not this time. There was no grandstand finish for the Red Devils. There were none of the late dramas their supporters have come to accept as standard. Wayne Rooney was off rhythm, and the supporting cast did not provide enough threat. The damning statistic is that United did not even have a single shot on target. City’s tenacity and composure meant that they mastered their nerves in the most vital of games.
Kompany summed up the mood: “I am absolutely buzzing; I don’t think we have a word for it. It is far from over and we know that, but to give our fans two wins over Man United, we have to finish it off now over the next two games. So much has been said about us, but it all comes down to the dreams we had as children. We want it so bad.”
Gary Neville, a stalwart at Old Trafford for so long, described what is unfolding as “Sir Alex Ferguson’s worst nightmare.” The idea of losing a league on goal difference is something that drives him to constantly remind his players throughout the season, if they are 1-0 or 2-0 ahead, to chase more goals.
This was a bitter pill for United to swallow. In the decades of dominance, history proves they very seldom throw titles away. And, make no mistake, this is not just about Monday night at the Etihad. United have jettisoned eight points from a possible 12 in their past four games.
And so, for the 11th time, the leadership at the top of the table this season changed. This result leaves these famous rivals tied on 83 points, and City on top with an eight-goal lead in goal difference.
The season defined? Maybe. The season decided? Not quite. Come Sunday, City travels to Newcastle — a difficult assignment considering the Geordies are still in the hunt for a Champions League place — and then United hosts Swansea at Old Trafford. Another swing is possible in this race.
“It’s not over yet, of course not as long as there are still games of football to be played,” Ferguson concluded.