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London – Manchester United have been here before. A 6-1 home loss to Manchester City two seasons ago was the most remarkable afternoon this great football conurbation had seen for many years.
That game – that scoreline – will never be forgotten and rightly so. A schoolyard score, it is still written across hundreds of sky blue T-shirts and helped propel City to their first English league title for 44 years.
What we witnessed here at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday, though, was perhaps even more extraordinary. It felt different. It felt bigger.
City’s win in October 2011 was incredible but was given a slightly skewed look by three late goals – two scored in injury time – against a 10-man team chasing a game that stood at 3-1 with a minute left.
On Sunday, United were fortunate to still be breathing by that stage. This was a game that looked over at half-time and likely to morph in to a massacre when two goals at the start of the second period stretched City’s lead to four.
That this didn’t happen was down partly to City’s inability to keep their foot on United’s throat and partly to a sense of pride that still burns deep inside most of those in red shirts. On this occasion, there appeared to be a determination – something almost visceral – to prevent four becoming five or six. That is something, at least.
Let us not forget, though, the looks on United faces as Samir Nasri’s goal found the back of the net with 40 minutes left. It was the key moment of the afternoon, when United knew the game was up and when thoughts of a comeback were washed away by a much more naked desire to save themselves from humiliation.
These were faces of players no longer in control of their own destinies, of players short of answers. In short, they didn’t, at that moment, look like the faces of Manchester United players.
Context is required. As United manager David Moyes said: “Every team has bad defeats. This was our turn.” This will be a long season.
Equally, though, it is hard to escape the fact that this was the most one-sided derby match in Manchester for many years.
City have inflicted the odd flesh wound in the past, of course. The Kevin Keegan era included a 4-1 win here in March 2004, and there isn’t a City supporter over a certain age who will ever forget the 5-1 destruction at Maine Road in September 1989.
Those of a United persuasion were already suggesting, though, that their team performed better in each of those games than on Sunday. It’s hard to think that they could have been any worse.
Pellegrini’s City team were deeply impressive. This club has witnessed some pretty breath-taking afternoons since Arab money arrived five years ago. Roberto Mancini delivered his share of stardust, as did predecessor Mark Hughes.
Here again, this latest version – a team with three summer signings in it – were exceptional. The slickness and intelligence of the passing and movement was almost without fault for the first hour. They would have scored goals against any English team playing like that.
United, though, contributed to their own problems. It is this, rather than the long-term threat carried by their neighbours, that will concern Moyes as he endeavours to move his team forwards.
For the first goal, Antonio Valencia chose not to track the overlapping Aleksander Kolarov. Then Marouane Fellaini allowed Yaya Toure to run off his shoulder at a corner before, in the second minute of the second half, he stood and watched Sergio Aguero move past to volley in the decisive third.
It was not a good afternoon for the big Belgian but then nor was it for anybody in red. Moyes suggested afterwards that Wayne Rooney had been “exceptional” and on another day could have been the best player on the field. It is hard to agree with any of that.
Moyes will have learned a few things on Sunday. For one thing, it is more clear than ever that his squad does not have City’s depth. United lost their best player – Robin van Persie – to an injury but so too did City as David Silva failed to make the cut.
Players like Chris Smalling and Ashley Young still seem to fall short of what is required. Among his substitutes, Moyes had some very good players indeed but the only one he deemed fit to send on was Tom Cleverley, merely a ploy to push Fellaini further forwards.
Moyes, of course, knows what it takes to do well at City. He has won here before as Everton boss. On this occasion, everything simply seemed too much for his players.
League games against Liverpool, Chelsea and City have now yielded one point and one goal. United have not scored in open play in the league since opening day. They are eighth.
When United lost heavily at Maine Road in 1989, Sir Alex Ferguson admitted later that he felt like staying in bed for a week. Moyes has no such option. United play Liverpool at home on Wednesday. – Daily Mail