It was billed as the biggest Premier League game in history. The title decider to end all title deciders. Bigger than the recent El Classico, Manchester United travelled the short distance to the Etihad, home of their noisy neighbours Manchester City. City, three points behind United, with 3 games remaining, came in to the game in much the better form. The recent return of Carlos Tevez, who seems determined to jump between hero and villain throughout his time in the north-west of the country, has certainly had an impact on their performances. As Mancini has settled with a fairly regular starting partnership of Aguero and Tevez, goals have started to fly in, and the flair and excitement that brought City so much praise at the start of the season has certainly returned.
On the other hand, it’s fair to say that United have not been as impressive of late. A shock loss to Wigan, although at this stage of the season any result involving Wigan appears to be a shock, and a defensive nightmare that allowed Everton to rescue a 4-4 draw has seen United throw away a healthy lead at the top of the table. Rooney, who has had one of his most impressive seasons for the Red Devils, has started to make less impact, and both Danny Wellbeck and Hernandez have failed to support him adequately. Despite their three point advantage, it was fair to say that City fans still believed the title race was alive and well. Mancini’s somewhat torturous repetition of the title race being over was clearly just a game. A risk, to take on one of the greatest mind-gamers in the history of the game, and on the surface it appeared to be a ridiculous game, one that Fergie would completely ignore. But it had worked. United’s performances had started to become complacent, and they were now staring at a potential second defeat in four games.
The atmosphere surrounding the game on Monday night was terrific. Everyone was talking about it, and as the evening approached a calm before the storm drifted across the country. Until the team news, that certainly woke pundits and football fans alike. Both Valencia and Young were on the bench for United, who started with five across the midfield, clearly in attempt to stifle the City attack. A risky strategy for a ninety minute game. Whilst a point would appear to give United the title, even then it wasn’t guaranteed, and obviously the flair of Silva, Nasri and Aguero was going to pose a problem, even with 10 men behind the ball for the entirety of the game.
For the first half an hour, Fergie appeared to have made a good decision. His tactics worked, and although City had the majority of possession, and spent most of the time in United’s half, the extra man in midfield and the defensive rigidity of United’s disciplined performance maintained the goalless scoreline. However, it was only a matter of time, and on the stroke of half time, one of the defensive errors that have blighted Fergie’s teams in recent weeks saw Kompany unmarked in the box to head home from a corner, and give City a precious lead.
In the second half, very little changed. Changes came too late, and it wasn’t until the very late stages of the game when Valencia and Young, two of United’s most impressive performers were finally introduced. It was too late, and they were unable to create a real impact, and the game ended 1-0 to Manchester City. If they win their remaining two games, they are Champions.
Alex Ferguson was very honest in his post-match interview. He admitted that they didn’t create enough chances, that City took to the occasion better than they did, and that essentially they didn’t deserve to win the game, but it has all come too late. As a neutral, I wanted the spectacle that these two teams are capable of providing. With Young and Valencia starting, United would have been much more open at the back, but their attacking threat would have been so much more potent, that the game itself would have been more interesting. In addition, if they were going to lose the game, I don’t understand why they didn’t play attacking and lose 3-2 or 4-3, instead of sitting back, inviting pressure, and succumbing to a 1-0.
Maybe they were still worried after the hiding they took earlier in the season. Maybe Fergie knew that the point would be enough. Whatever the reason behind his decision, everyone knows that Sir Alex Ferguson is one of the greatest managers of all time. I feel that he ignored his attacking instincts on Monday night, deciding instead to play right into Manchester City’s hands. His frustration was all too clear after a fairly nothing tackle from De Jong brought him out of his dugout and launching an attack on Roberto Mancini. Maybe a frustration that his own tactics were wrong, maybe a frustration that they have thrown the title away. Either way, it’s nice to see that after such a long time in management, even Alex Ferguson can learn new things.
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