If the Premier League excels at any one thing, then that thing must be spectacle of the type that we saw at the City of Manchester Stadium last night. The significance of this meeting between Manchester City and Manchester United – both literal and symbolic - could not have been lost upon anybody that cast so much as a cursory glance in the direction of the league table, and in the build up to the match the press began to run out of superlatives regarding its significance. It was a sense of expectation that the two sides could never hope to live up to, but Manchester City and Manchester United still contrived to offer up ninety minutes of the sort of tension and high drama that only the end of the domestic football season seems capable of offering.
While the mathematics of evening were simple enough for a child to understand – City had to win to go back to the top of the table with two games left to play; anything else would most likely mean a twentieth league championship going to Old Trafford – the permutations for the rest of the season remain somewhat more opaque. Vincent Kompany’s goal thirty seconds into stoppage time at the end of the first half meant that Roberto Mancini achieved his goal for the evening, but this time around even hitting the top of the table with must two games of the season left to play doesn’t mean that all bets for the league title are off yet. Manchester City have to pick themselves up, dust themselves down and travel to Tyneside next weekend to do this all again against a Newcastle United side that continues to chase a Champions League place and was humbled at Wigan Athletic last weekend. If they come through this considerable test, then a home win against Queens Park Rangers on the final day of the season will likely see the club become the champions of England for the first time since 1968.
My use of the word “likely” in the previous sentence is deliberate, though, because for all the pre-match build-up which labelled last nights match as a title decider, Manchester United remain level on points with them and breathing down their necks. It seems inconceivable that Alex Ferguson would even come close to throwing in the towel on the basis of last night’s result, and his team has a final two matches against Swansea City and Sunderland teams that may already have one eye on their sun beds. That City have to keep winning to keep their chances of lifting the title realistic is a given. Even six points from their final two matches might, conceivably at least, not be enough, though. The gap between the two clubs in terms of goal difference remains eight goals – a tall order to close in just two matches, but not an insurmountable obstruction. And if there has one thing that the last twenty years has taught us beyond reasonable doubt, it must surely be that Alex Ferguson will not be giving up the league title at this early stage.
For all of this, however, there was only one team in control at the City of Manchester Stadium last night. Over the course of ninety minutes, Manchester United managed just four attempts on goal last night, of which two were blocked and two missed their target altogether. It was, in other words, as quiet a night as the Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart has had all season. Roberto Mancini has been criticised at times this season for being too cautious, but last night he played his hand to perfection. Having dominated the early stages of the second half, as the clock ticked past the hour mark Manchester United began to wrest control of the middle third of the pitch from them. His reaction to this – to withdraw Carlos Tevez for Nigel De Jong – was defensive, but it paid handsome dividends. De Jong added a little more bite to a midfield that was starting to tire, and Manchester City started to regain control of that middle third of the pitch again. Throughout the closing stages of the match, it was the home side that looked considerably more likely to score.
The goal that had already come by this stage was simple, predictable and brutally effective. David Silva’s corner from the right-hand side was perfectly delivered for strength and height and Vincent Kompany smartly shook off his marker Chris Smalling before planting a powerful header past David De Gea from close range. It was a goal that came thirty seconds into stoppage time at the end of the first half, and the cacophonous noise of the home crowd had scarcely died down ninety seconds later when the whistle blew for half-time. This goal was, however, a rare moment in an otherwise undistinguished first forty-five minutes of football.
At the pre-match press conference Alex Ferguson had stated that Manchester United wouldn’t be turning out to solely play for a draw, but his team was set out in a similar manner to the abortive European missions of earlier this season and it was also difficult to avoid the suspicion that his players were slightly hamstrung by their knowledge of the mathematics of the top of the table and the understanding of what they needed to do and what they needed to avoid. There were few performances of great distinction amongst their team, but a special mention should be made of the singularly anonymous Nani, who may as well have not been on the pitch in the first place. He was replaced in the second half, presumably with one eye on improving the teams woeful record on delivery of the ball into the Manchester City penalty area, by Antonio Valencia, but by this time United’s toothlessness was all too evident and the tempo of the match had irrevocably been set.
It is tempting, when we consider the cash that has poured into the City of Manchester Stadium over the course of the last two or three years coupled with the extravagant levels of debt lavished upon Manchester United to fund the Glazer take-over of the club, to seek to see a tipping point in the balance of power between the two clubs. It was a conversation that was had after City won last year’s FA Cup semi-final. It was repeated after they won 6-1 at Old Trafford earlier this season, and it has surfaced again this morning. Manchester United supporters shouldn’t, perhaps, feel chastened by losing the match at the City of Manchester Stadium last night, but the longer term trend may give them cause for concern. Capitulation in Europe – both in the Champions League and the Europa League – and the dropping of an eight point lead over the course of the last six matches – the full implications of which are in some respects so astonishing that it rather feels as if neither supporters or the media have fully taken it in yet – are behaviours so out of character in the recent history of the club that we might have pause to consider whether the problems of this season are indicative of something more structural than merely a few bad results on the pitch.
Manchester City, meanwhile, will have to wait another couple of weeks to see what the significance of this evening’s result is. When they last won the Football League championship in 1968, Manchester United trumped them a couple of weeks later by becoming the first English club to win the European Cup. Thirty-one years later, when they ended their slump through the divisions by winning promotion back from the third tier of English football against Gillingham at Wembley, Manchester United did it again by completing a domestic treble later in the same month by beating Bayern Munich in Barcelona. And as recently as last year, when they ended a thirty-five year long run without a major trophy by beating Stoke City in the FA Cup final, vindictive scheduling by the Premier League against the FA Cup meant that Manchester United won the Premier League trophy on the same day. It is precisely such experiences that go a long way towards shaping the psychology of Manchester City’s core support and is the reason why there will be few in the sky blue half of the city that will be taking too much for granted this afternoon. That elusive title isn’t won yet, but last night’s result was a big step towards it.
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