Perhaps it was “The Curse Of ITV” returning to haunt us again. Last night, they showed a documentary about football in Manchester which examined, through the eyes of Eric Cantona, the current and historical state of the rivalry between Manchester City and Manchester United. The two clubs have had their fair share of drama from the matches between them in recent years, so perhaps it was understandable that ITV should choose to schedule this match at this time. Other corners of the press had, after all, also been been building the match up in a wearyingly predictable manner. Alex Ferguson had given them something to chew on in a press conference, and Manchester City had been off-colour over their last few matches, although a win at West Bromwich Albion at the weekend whilst Chelsea and Arsenal both lost at the weekend. Their faint flicker of Premier League title ambitions sparked back to life with this combination of results and the grudges of the last few weeks, months, years and decades continue to provide us with one of the key ingredients of a genuine showdown – subtext. The Manchester Derby is An Event.
Except this match turned out to be nothing like as dramatic as in recent years. For all that we can criticise the Premier League in so many ways, the truth of the matter is that the actual quality of football on display can still be amazing and the spectacle itself overpowering. Tonight’s match was one of the most keenly awaited of the season, but it turned out to be an almost completely underwhelming experience. There was one moment of near-brilliance throughout the entire ninety minutes, a curling free-kick from Carlos Tevez that arched around the wall before being clawed away by Edwin Van Der Saar. It was a lone star in the sky, a solitary twinkling moment in an evening of relentless mediocrity and on another evening it might have deserved better. Tonight, though, for either team to have snatched all three points would have been a travesty – not so much because neither team deserved to lose, rather because neither deserved to lose.
Considerably more typical of the evening was Manchester United’s best half of the first half, a volley from Dimitar Berbatov on the right-hand side of the penalty area that could on other, more fortunate evenings, have shot into the top corner of the net, but ended up tonight looking more like a defensive cricket shot. Berbatov had one moment of improvised brilliance early in the second half, an overhead kick which was too close to Joe Hart, but overall this was a match that never really got out of second gear, an exhibition of two sides determined not to lose, and who consequently spent ninety minutes cancelling out. While Manchester United dominated possession, Hart’s goal never felt seriously likely to be breached and draw was a fair result – neither side deserved anything more, and the ambitions of both sides were nominally dented by the dropped points.
The jury remains out on Manchester City. Capable of brushing stronger teams but losing to inferior opposition, until that come close to matching the sum of their parts their arrival as one of the Biggest Clubs In The Premier League remains on ice. That elusive first trophy since 1976 may yet come this season, but it seems unlikely to be the Premier League title on this evidence. Manchester United, on the other hand, remain curiously enigmatic this season. Still unbeaten but struggling to match the heights of recent years, their mask of imperiousness has slipped somewhat. The feeling remains that the core of their team – Scholes, Van Der Saar, Ferdinand – is past its best and without Wayne Rooney (or someone else) picking consistent holes in opposing teams, they lack the presence of recent years. Capable of beating anybody but capable of failing to beat anybody, they could yet win the Premier League, but they are still missing that critical spark – that almost indefinable quality that has made them so irresistable in recent years.
We might not find out a great deal more about Manchester United until they play Arsenal and Chelsea in successive matches next month, either. How do we interpret their recent performances? Late winners against Stoke City and Wolverhampton Wanderers could indicate that the team is winning when not playing brilliantly, but it could equally just mean that this is a team that is somewhat fortunate not to have lost a couple of league matches already this season. City, on the other hand, demonstrate their enigma in a different way. The pressure is starting to slowly build upon Roberto Mancini. Each dropped point is starting to cause howls of anguish from those that suspected that he might not be the man for the job in the first place. That bond isn’t quite there yet. His position is far from untenable, but spending half a billion pounds on players may well give the club’s owners itchy feet. How long are they prepared to wait?
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