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London – Sir Alex Ferguson has been in Manchester long enough to recognise the signs. Manchester City making life difficult for themselves. He has seen this before.
As City have grown under the ownership of Abu Dhabi, we began to think we had seen the last of this. Not yet, it seems. A fraction of the DNA remains unchanged.
Despite the drama and the compelling nature of the football, this was not a game that the champions of the Barclays Premier League should have lost. Not after they had come so far to recover from two wounding United thrusts in the first half.
Afterward, Wayne Rooney said that ‘something special’ had won United this remarkable game. He was referring to Robin van Persie’s free-kick.
A terrific strike though it was, the United striker’s shot would not have found the corner had Carlos Tevez not moved from the end of the wall as Van Persie began his run-up. Nor would it have gone in had Sami Nasri not half-hidden behind Edin Dzeko.
Indeed, the free-kick would not have been conceded in the first place had Joe Hart and Gael Clichy communicated properly as they endeavoured to deal with a rather overhit through-ball.
Granted, these are small details. But it’s often the small details that make the difference at this level.
So, United celebrate a terrific and vital victory. In one swish of Van Persie’s left boot, Ferguson’s persistently dangerous team moved six points clear at the top and demolished an unbeaten City home record that had stood for 37 games and a few days shy of two years.
You see, the small details really do make the difference.
It is hard to argue, as Ferguson did, that United were the better team over the whole piece. They had their moments on the counter but a draw would have ultimately reflected the game pretty well.
However, there was a relative serenity about much of United’s football, even amid the frantic action that characterised the closing moments of the game. On days like this, when the temperature rises above normal levels, this can sometimes be very important.
Certainly there was an absence of the unpredictability that currently seems to hover around the fringes of Roberto Mancini’s City.
Before kick-off on Sunday, Mancini shocked us. Mario Balotelli started ahead of Carlos Tevez. Then, when captain Vincent Kompany left the field with an injury, he was replaced not by England’s Joleon Lescott but by the previously out of favour Kolo Toure.
Mancini is paid to make these decisions, of course. He won the FA Cup and Premier League in his first two full seasons at the Etihad so he must have got a good many of them right. These, though, were perplexing, even more so in the light of a Balotelli performance that was so insipid he was withdrawn just a few minutes into the second half.
Mancini suggested: “It’s easy to look at these decisions at the end of the game. I thought Balotelli could trouble their defenders but I was wrong.
“Kolo came on for Vinny because we couldn’t have two left-footed central defenders together.”
What will perhaps irritate Mancini today is his team could have won. With clearer heads they certainly wouldn’t have lost. Their recovery from two goals down was as admirable as it was thrilling and in the wake of Pablo Zabaleta’s wonder-fully taken equaliser, the hosts looked the more likely to score again. Momentum was with them and, as the City boss will have noted, there was no sign of the lamentable, pedestrian football they had served up against Dortmund five days earlier.
Whether they were playing for their manager or their supporters or themselves, they were playing for someone and that was all that mattered.
United goalkeeper David de Gea – who had a very good game on the whole – made a couple of late saves and was forced to hack a bouncing ball away from the edge of his own six-yard line.
That City didn’t score, though, will not surprise too many people who have watched them recently. They have won games late on this season – most notably at West Brom and at home to Tottenham – but recently they do not seem to have United’s conviction and that looks crucially important as we head towards Christmas.
On the touchline, Mancini continues to look pained. He yelled at Balotelli after Rooney had scored United’s first goal and then sent Carlos Tevez to warm up. We had only been playing 15 minutes.
When Balotelli eventually did leave the field five minutes after the break, his manager didn’t even look at him. His replacement then spurned a chance. More yelling.
None of this will soothe the nerves of the more reasoned City followers who sense fraying nerves at the Etihad Stadium.
There was a time last season when this City team moved steadily forwards without even disturbing the surface of the water. Currently the ripples carry the wrong messages.
Mancini will believe the momentum can shift and it certainly can. The events of last April and May are fresh in the mind. The lead must come from him, though. He, as the manager, sets the mood.
In Manchester, City may still have the better players. They do not, however, have the best team. – Daily Mail