Manchester City against Manchester United in the semi-finals of the League Cup. A small bead of drool must have formed in the corner of Brian Mawhinney’s mouth when the draw was made. There are so many threads to tie together with this match that it is almost impossible to keep track of them all. Matches between the two clubs carry a narrative of its own that weaves throughout the history of English football. The two clubs going to head to head against each other for the League Championship in 1968. Denis Law’s backheel in May 1974 (which didn’t relegate United in itself – results elsewhere meant that it would have happened anyway, but it was as apt a visual metaphor for the conclusion of Manchester United’s decline in the early 1970s as could have been imagined). The Old Trafford steamroller of the 1990s contrasting starkly with City’s decine and fall to the third tier of English football.
The history of the two clubs is as much about each other as it is with themselves, just as it is with so many local derbies. This match, however, is about the present and the future as much as it is about the past. Manchester United started the season as the three times Premier League champions and one of an ever-diminishing band of European super clubs. City started it as the pretenders. Money rich arrivistes – and there’s nothing that the seasoned clubs at the top of the table dislike as much as other clubs that start to spend more than they do on players – that were making a pretty good job of getting up their rivals’ noses. In the autumn, though, things seemed to be going pretty much according to the script. Manchester United weren’t playing exceptionally well, but they coasted through their Champions League group and were well in touch with Chelsea at the top of the table. City, meanwhile, had a lengthy spell of making very hard work of seeing off some very mediocre opposition.
Over the last few weeks, however, something has changed. United’s form started to suffer, culminating in that humiliating home defeat at the hands of Leeds United in the Third Round of the FA Cup. City, meanwhile, took a massive gamble on replacing Mark Hughes but Roberto Mancini has given the impression of having been able to steady the choppy waters at The City of Manchester Stadium. As he started to pick up results and hauled the team back into serious contention for a place in the Champions League, early grumbling about the sacking of Hughes Melted away. United, meanwhile, face infrastructural problems. The club’s proposed bond issue has ignited a tinderbox, arguably overstating talk of the club’s imminent collapse, but the feeling, for the first time in a decade and a half, that Manchester United’s place at or about the top of the table may not be as perpetual as we had all thought, is certainly on the rise.
The noise and the bluster. It feel’s as if the roof is going to lift clean off The City of Manchester Stadium as the teams take the pitch, but the first fifteen minutes are cagey, with both teams already fully aware that full time this evening is only half-time in the tie. Then, quite suddenly, Manchester United seize the lead. Antonio Valencia wriggles himself into a little space on the right hand side and slides the ball across the goal for Ryan Giggs to tap the ball in. It’s an easy goal, almost perfunctory one. City respond by pushing forward, but they still look out of sorts. A cross from the right finds Carlos Tevez unmarked and eight yards out but he misjudges his jump and the ball thumps off his chest, into the ground and away. City are pressuring, but nothing much is coming from it but then, with a couple of minutes left to play in the half, a life-line and the major talking point of the evening. Rafael has been tussling with Craig Bellamy for much of the evening, but Bellamy gets away from him and cuts inside. There’s a tug, outside of the penalty, and then a second one, much slighter, inside the penalty area. You can probably guess which one sends him tumbling. Rafael is booked for the foul, Van der Saar is booked for time-wasting. Tevez – who else was it ever going to be? – smashes the ball into the roof of the net to put City level.
The second half starts openly. The play swings from end of end with the regularity of a pendulum. At one end, Wayne Rooney almost squeezes the ball past Shay Given, but the City goalkeeper blocks. At the other, Patrice Evra blocks a shot from Micah Ricards. Two minutes later, the ball is back up the other end of the pitch and Given provides further evidence for those that believe that he is the most important signing that they have made in recent years with a smart save from a narrow Ryan Giggs. Manchester City, however, are starting to get on top, and nineteen minutes into the second half comes the second goal. United fail to clear a corner, Zabaleta smartly passes wide to the hitherto anoymous Kompany, and he hooks the ball across for Tevez to head in from close range with the United central defence still asleep. Two minutes later, Bellamy finds space on the left and sends over a low ball but Shaun Wright-Phillips’ shot is well saved by Van der Saar.
City have ten minutes during which they look as likely as not to run away with the match. Bellamy is electrifying, seeming to cover every blade of grass on the pitch, but a one goal lead is too slender to offer them any guarnantees of anything. With fifteen minutes to play, United break through and come within inches of bringing the scores level. Rooney makes himself a foot of space and Given blocks with his legs. Michael Owen, as fresh on the pitch as a substitute as Michael Owen can be at this stage in his career, scuffs his shot, which beats given but is cleared from the line by Nedum Onuoha. Manchester United are, now, turning the screw. Minutes later, Rooney – who is single-handedly keeping them in the game – shoots from an angle forcing a quite brilliant save from Given. With ten minutes still to play, City are defending too deeply and conceding too much of the ball in the centre of the pitch.
With four minutes to play, a golden chance for Manchester United. A driven cross from the right hand side finds Valencia in front of an open goal and two yards out, but he blasts the ball wide. The linesman’s flag spares the worst of his blushes. The clock ticks past ninety minutes and City supporters, mindful of what happened in injury time the last time they were involved in a Manchester derby, launch into a half-hearted cry of “Come On City!”. The nerves are too shredded for it to last. Wayne Rooney, one of the four or five Manchester United players that deserve something from this match, drops his shoulder and forces another great save from Given. The resulting corner sees Diouf head well wide. As the clock ticks over ninety-five minutes, the third biggest cheer of the night greets the announcement that Tevez has won the award for Man of the Match. The fourth biggest follows seconds later, with the final whistle.
City edge it, then, and take the slenderest of leads to Old Trafford for the second leg. Manchester United have again shown that one of their greatest strengths is to play to the very, very end of the match. The Manchester City defence was in a state not far short of disarray by the end of the match. Rumours of the imminent demise of Manchester United, on the pitch, at least, seem to be well wide of the mark. Ultimately, however, this match was alla bout Carlos Tevez, the man who wanted to stay at Old Trafford but found someone at the club – it’s difficult to believe that it was Alex Ferguson – reluctant to pay the money required to so do. If there is anything to come from the match that might just point the way towards a greyer future for Manchester United, it is this. Not quite, as some have said it might have been, a passing of the baton from one dynasty to another, but a little more grist to the mill in the idea that something strange is afoot in the city of Manchester.