The Manchester derby, one of the biggest games in English club football in recent years, returned for the 168th time. These two teams collectively have won each of the four Premier League titles since Chelsea won in 2009-10. When cash-flush City emerged as a Premier League heavyweight, the then United manager Sir Alex Ferguson dubbed them as the noisy neighbours. Since the Scot’s retirement, United have been on a decline of sorts while City have only been getting better. The ‘massive spenders’ City spent much less than United this year and were even less boastful about themselves than United. Who’s the noisy neighbour now, eh?
That being said, this tie was a desperate affair for either side. Having faltered against lesser teams this season, both teams found themselves playing catch-up to a rampant Chelsea early on. Judging on the merit of form in the last five games, this match was a clash between the seventh and the eighth placed teams. Both teams put out their best available starting line-ups in acknowledgment of the gravity of this fixture. Among the prominent names, David Silva and Kolarov (warm-up injury) were absent for Manchester City while Rafael and Falcao were out for Manchester United, who were handed a boost by their returning skipper Wayne Rooney.
Capped off by a Demichelis foul on Van Persie in the first minute, this match started at a high tempo but offered little precision in the happenings. There were misplaced passes, ill-timed tackles and poor decision making all around. Barring an optimistic attempt by Aguero on goal, there was nothing in the first ten minutes for Manchester City. Right after that at the other end, Van Persie set up a volley for Januzaj from a Di Maria cross, which he couldn’t place properly. Minutes later, Di Maria swung in a delightful cross from the left, which Van Persie couldn’t get on target.
Having dominated the game in the number of chances created so far, United were left in panic after an incessant City onslaught lasting over two minutes. Taking control of a wonderful diagonal by Fernando, Aguero twisted his way to a very tight angle and hit the ball straight at De Gea. Seconds later, a lovely counter attacking move ended with a pass to the feet of Jesus Navas, who, totally unmarked, hit it close enough to the ‘keeper’s body for De Gea to make the save. In the very next minute, Fernando slid the ball in from the left for Aguero, who was denied by De Gea who was quick off his lines.
Around the half hour mark, a United free kick is handled well by Joe Hart, whose attempt to clear the ball upfield is hampered by Smalling, standing right in front and making a deliberate attempt to block. As a result, the former Fulham man went into the book. He was to see red in the next few minutes as he followed up his stupidity with sheer idiocy by bringing down Milner by a mistimed sliding tackle. The resulting free kick very nearly resulted in a City goal, as Milner’s ball only just evaded Kompany’s forehead.
United were to get lucky twice before half time as clear cut penalty appeals went their way. With his back to the goal, Aguero was manoeuvring his way out of the box when Fellaini clipped his ankle and got the ball. The young Michael Oliver waved play on. In the last action of the game, Toure was set free by Jovetic and was tackled and brought down from behind by Marcos Rojo, who escaped any sanctions with City being denied another penalty.
Four minutes into the second half, United were let off again as the ball hit the hands of both Carrick and Fellaini in the same move, ten or so yards away from the referee. As had been the theme by then, City received nothing. Minutes later, Marcos Rojo slid in to dispossess Demichelis, but managed to dislocate his shoulder in the process. Young Paddy McNair came off the bench as Van Gaal’s defence featured two teenagers, a right winger and a central midfielder. The corner that came from the above move was headed by Jovetic into Blind’s hands, but a handball surely would have been harsh there. What wouldn’t have been harsh though is a penalty for City when Aguero again got impeded by the combo of Fellaini and Carrick. The game went on and the toothless Manchester United remained in the game.
That was until a moment of brilliance by Yaya Toure. The Ivorian slid in a slicing through ball for Clichy, whose cross was ably turned in first time by Aguero. United were having a hard time keeping hold of the ball but Van Persie had a chance to put them on level terms. Spinning away from Demichelis on the right, he shot straight at Hart, who made the save. Soon, Navas speeded past the United defence and lashed a shot that hit the post. Meanwhile, at the other end, a Rooney dribble was brought to an end by a body block by Demichelis, and the ball fell for Di Maria, who had the best United chance so far to score, but he hit it within Hart’s reach. In the very next minute, a free kick found Fellaini who managed to get on the wrong side of Kompany, only to miss the header completely when barely yards away from goal. The ball bounced out into touch off his shoulder.
United were throwing men forward and a goal was looking imminent for the 10-men visitors. City’s attacking forays went down in number and United hauled off the ineffective Van Persie in favour of the young James Wilson. City responded by shoring up the midfield by bringing on Fernandinho for the goalscorer Aguero. United kept on piling up the pressure and were unlucky to not get an equalizer. Yaya Toure though had another moment of magic left in him as he spun past Carrick and sent a curling effort, just wide of De Gea’s goal. United had two corners late in stoppage time but Di Maria’s poor delivery meant that the ball did not get past the first man on either occasion.
Lacklustre Van Persie
Van Persie was invisible for most of the game before he was subbed off. Aside from the one chance that he set up for Januzaj and the shot from the narrow angle in the second half, his major contributions were negligible. Unlike Rooney, he didn’t even help out at the back. With players like Di Maria and Januzaj and Juan Mata, a team like United needs a striker who can make fast runs in the danger zones and Van Persie is just not the right guy for that. Falcao couldn’t get fitter any sooner for the Red Devils!
Imperious Yaya Toure
Maybe he was given a cake prior to the match, but the Ivorian had his mark on the whole game. From the hockey assist to set Aguero’s goal or the sleek turn and shoot in stoppage time that missed by inches, Toure was driving the attack for the Citizens. He was back to his marauding, rampaging best after being criticized for being in a shell in the last few games. His form is crucial for City if they are to catch up with Chelsea.
Fading Di Maria
Had Mesut Ozil given a performance like Di Maria did on Sunday, there would have been several newspaper columns slating him. After an initial honeymoon period, the Argentine has simply gone off the boil with extremely lacklustre performances against Chelsea and City. He resorted to crossing way too often, without much success. When he was given an opportunity to drive at opponents and dribble his way past defenders, he looked indecisive and lost the ball cheaply.
United started the game brightly, before ceding control to Yaya Toure and his merry band. Chris Smalling, who supposedly has a better footballing brain than Phil Jones, garnered two stupid yellows that changed the complexion of the game. Though United had a late rally towards the end and might have had an equalizer, what if the referee had given the penalty calls in City’s favour? United are a work in progress and City need to up their game if they are to get to the level Chelsea are at the moment.