Well, none of us expected that and, such was the imperiousness of Manchester City’s performance at Old Trafford this afternoon the thesauruses have already been wrung dry as the internet groans under the weight of the superlatives being thrown at Roberto Mancini’s team. This was a performance for the ages, one which will come to eclipse some of the club’s most famous performances against Manchester United, such as their 5-1 win at Maine Road in 1989 or their win at Old Trafford on the last day of the 1973/74 season. Was today, however, a remarkable one-off, or a marker being put down in the pursuit of something far greater?
There had been signs over recent weeks that Manchester United were not necesarily going to find things easy today. Lacklustre in recent performances against Liverpool, FC Basel and Stoke City, their early season brilliance has been wavering of late, while Manchester City had scored four goals in each of their last two Premier League matches. Alex Ferguson, however, has had a habit in recent years of managing to pull something from somewhere, and even the psychological damage which might have been done by City beating them in the semi-final of the FA Cup at Wembley earlier this year, even the effects of this might have been diluted by United coming back from two goals down to beat City in the Community Shield.
This afternoon, however, the pieces of the expensively-assembled jigsaw fitted together perfectly. Mario Balotelli, an eccentric to the point that he is now beyond parody – nothing that any writer could ever make up about this player could ever be as funny as what he actually gets up to – reaffirmed his glorious brilliance with two goals, whilst James Milner put in what may likely turn out to be his performance of the season and Micah Richards rolled the clock back to the days when it was impossible to move for articles in the press prasing him to the heavens. Fluid, disciplined and controlled, they made Manchester United look ordinary in every department and, although the performance over the ninety minutes was flattered by the United defence’s collapse as the match wound down into injury time and Old Trafford emptied, that their current team is every inch the match of United cannot now be questioned.
The moment at which the game became a lost cause for the home side came barely a minute in the second half, with the sending off of Jonny Evans for a rug on the shirt of Balotelli as the striker ran through on the edge of the penalty area. Balotelli had been proving to be enough of a handful during the first half and, a man short, it felt as if losing a player was going to be a bridge too far for Manchester United. Balotelli’s second goal on the hour was a masterstroke of team-work ending with a tap-in from a couple of yards out, and with their third, scored by Aguero with just over twenty minutes to play, was enough to start the vacating seats by some Manchester United supporters that had already seen enough.
It wasn’t difficult to understand why they might have felt this way, even if the taboo of leaving a ground because your team is losing remains. This afternoon, there was no point at which it felt as if United were going to drag themselves back into this match, even after Darren Fletcher’s sumptuous curling shot which gave them a hint of a reason to feel optimistic with ten minutes left to play. To pick out Manchester United players for criticism would be a futile exercise, since so many of them put in such anonymous performances this afternoon. They will be back, of course (they always do), but it was difficult not to look at the performance of Rio Ferdinand and wonder whether he is now on the downward spiral of his career.
Today, though, was about Manchester City. They do not meet Manchester United again in the league until the end of April, and if the psychological aspect of the game is important, it seems likely that a result such as today’s will not be critical in giving the team a sense of belief that this could be the year which ends the forty-three years since they last won the championship. The Carlos Tevez affair of last month could have been a back-breaker for Roberto Mancini, a manager upon whom expectations have been building piece by piece as more and more money has been thrown at it. He seems to have come out of it, however, with his authority having being reinforced and the team has been starting to visibly grow in confidence since then.
To write off Manchester United, however, would be overly-simplistic. Although it has been a long time since they suffered a defeat like today’s, they have suffered set-backs before and one Alex Ferguson’s greatest achievements has been building a sense of resilience into his teams which has mean that such set-backs have seldom had a lasting effect on the team’s well-being in the long term. No matter what happened today – and Ferguson himself said after the match that “There’s a lot of embarrassment in the dressing room and rightly so” – to suggest that the title race is over on the basis of this performance would appear facile. Manchester United will be back. They always do.
Today, though, the last remaining vestiges of doubt that Manchester City are capable winning the Premier League evaporated on the Old Trafford pitch. The belief (in the case of many, the hope) that the assortment of brilliant players which has been expensively-assembled by the lavish spending of the owners would not be able to form themselves into a cohesive team has looked increasingly far-fetched over the last few months. Today, we saw the culmination of the potential which has been bought for them and, while the end of October is clearly too early to be making pronouncements over who will definitely, without a shadow of a doubt, be lifting the Premier League title in May of next year, any remaining doubts over their ability has been swept aside, and that, while the balance of power in Manchester hasn’t swung from one pole to the other, there can be little question that, for this evening at the absolute least, it hangs firmly in the balance.
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