“I love Mancini. He’s nearly as cool as me” -Manchester City supporter and Oasis singer Liam Gallagher
While yesterday’s Manchester Derby certainly wouldn’t be mistaken for a classic, I can’t help but feel obligated to comment on the match that was billed as the most important game in the 20-year history of the Premier League. With the 1-0 win, Manchester City put itself in the driver’s seat for its first title in over 40 years. And while the title is certainly not theirs yet, this result marks another chapter in a wild title race that neither of the Manchester clubs have truly grasped hold of.
Roberto Mancini, manager of Manchester City, deserves massive commendation for his ability to keep a cool head during the home stretch of the season. Constantly downplaying his team’s chances and heaping the pressure onto the red side of Manchester, Mancini engaged in mind games with United’s Sir Alex Ferguson who is generally not one to be reckoned with when it comes to a war of words as Rafa Benitez and Kevin Keegan can attest to.
With such a massive build-up, it was nearly impossible for the game to live up to everyone’s immense expectations and an unbiased spectator may have been disappointed in a match that produced so few chances. This game was colossal with the BBC’s Martin Tyler estimating over a billion people watching while more cautious estimates placed the numbers between 450 and 700 million viewers worldwide. While the match itself wasn’t great, the atmosphere at the Etihad Stadium was unparalleled. City’s home form has been sublime and in their last 18 at home, Manchester City has won 17 and drawn only once. When the final whistle blew and City’s supporters proudly held up their blue and white scarves and belted out “Hey Jude,” you couldn’t help but be blown away with the environment.
City were outstanding though and United were rather poor as City’s resolute defending held them to zero shots on goal for the first time since United drew 0-0 with Arsenal in 2009. The back four were fabulous with Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta standing out especially. Zabaleta, known more for his defense, gave United fits with his overlapping runs as he and Samir Nasri worked down the right flank. Nasri was also excellent and he has hit quite a nice run of form after what is considered by most a disappointing first season since his transfer from Arsenal. Yaya Toure and Gareth Barry were also very good, holding their lines well. David Silva was average and while Aguero did good things, none of the forwards involved really impressed much.
Manchester United on the other hand were really quite poor. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling struggled at the back with Smalling responsible for losing Kompany on his headed goal, which proved to be the winner. While its easy in hindsight to question Sir Alex Ferguson’s team selection, I was shocked he did not include Antonio Valencia who has been one of the best players in the Premier League since January, notching 13 assists, more than double anyone else in the league. Ji-Sung Park and Ryan Giggs were ineffectual, Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick were unable to boss the midfield and Wayne Rooney was rather pedestrian.
So while the quality of the match wasn’t outstanding, the consequences of it are huge. Manchester City now sit atop the table with only two games left, tied with United on points but with a superior goal differential. While the title race certainly isn’t over, City still have a very tricky game away to a resurgent Newcastle squad, they are most definitely the favorites to take home the trophy. So what does it mean? Are we witnessing a complete upheaval of the prevailing footballing hierarchy in England? The talks of Manchester United’s demise are overblown and when Sir Alex Ferguson is in charge, they can’t be counted out. With that being said, even the most ardent United supporter must admit that this team lacks a little magic of team’s past and that their spot in the league table could have something to do with the relative poor quality of the top teams in England. This is Chelsea’s worst season since before the Jose Mourinho era, Liverpool have been downright awful, Tottenham has been wildly consistent and Arsenal have been injury-ravaged and unpredictable. While this is true, you still need to win the games and Manchester United have done that this year. With that being said, the noisy neighbors are getting louder and while the talk of a complete upheaval is premature, we are certainly witnessing a shift in the paradigm towards the blue half of Manchester.