This should quite easily be among the most breathtaking United matches in recent times. The drama, the talk going into the match, the punches being thrown pre-match between managers, fans and players alike, everything contributed into elevating the stakes to stratospheric proportions.
It was a derby after all, with three points to bag, but with so much talk, United and United fans would have absolutely hated losing this game much more than past derbies.
The match began at a frenetic pace; it took Rooney all of two minutes to open the scoring, keeping with his rich vein of form. For the first fifteen minutes, it was all United. The players played like this really mattered. After all, whilst a United win would mean status quo, a loss would make everyone in the press bleat about how City have “finally arrived”. That talk would be far too annoying for any supporter, and it’s good to see the players recognized that during the first fifteen minutes.
If there was one recurring theme that could characterize this match it was individual errors. Foster’s indecision — trying to be cute when an adherence to basic goal keeping fundamentals, of clearing the lines, would have worked — was brutally exploited by a certain Argentinian hobbit, who passed it to Barry to stroke it home. 1-1.
After that City gained the ascendancy during the half with Tevez going close; hitting the post. A Tevez goal would have made me absolutely sick, and I’m sure a lot of the fans in the stands who booed him at every opportunity would have felt the same. Thankfully we went into halftime, level, and hopefully, a Ferguson bollocking lying in wait.
Before we talk about events that were to follow, I must praise the manager for getting his tactics right. We didn’t accord the unnecessary respect we seem to give to any decent side at OT [like our 4-5-1 against Arsenal at home, for instance] 4-4-2 it was, and a fearless one at that. Park was more or less expected to do the defensive work, whilst Giggs started on the left.
We started the second half with much more purpose, ran City’s midfield ragged, Ryan Giggs, Darren Fletcher growing into colossal figures in the match; the two combining to score two of our four goals. Anderson also was impressive in lending urgency and steel to our midfield alongside Fletcher. It’s glaringly obvious now, and at the risk of sounding like a broken record, our midfield looks far better with Fletcher in it. And he was everywhere, now even attacking the ball at full pelt in the box. We have been crying out for midfielders who can step up to share the goal scoring burden. Yesterday Fletcher did just that, and more.
To be fair, not much could be done about Bellamy’s first goal — it was a belter and a fabulous one. However, once we made it 3-2 with another Fletcher header, and winded down the clock, Ferdinand inexplicably looped the ball, in an attempt to be the footballing equivalent of cool as some of his rap idols, gifting the ball away with another counter attacking goal from Bellamy. Foster was beaten at his near post, but the fault squarely lay on Rio. I wouldn’t hound him for it; I’m sure he’s yet to fully recover from his injury. With Evans also playing on through pain in other games, with a dodgy ankle, we have some issues with our defence that needs sorting.
Much has been made out of the extra time given to United resulting in our injury time goal, but according to the MOTD2 analysis, Bellamy’s goal celebration took 56 seconds, the Carrick-Anderson substitution would add another thirty seconds thus giving us a total added time of 5:26. We scored at 5:27; a second later, which is not something Hughes should be mad about. What he should really be talking about was the mindless hoofing City’s defence resorted to in an attempt to see out the day, rather than holding on to the ball to run down the clock. High scoring derbies, are often a showcase for poor defending, whilst being great for the neutral. Yesterday was no different in that respect. We made some glaring individual errors which Ferguson was rightly angry about, but given the way we dominated the second half we would have scored 6-7 goals if not for Given’s late reaction saves. City were abject defensively, and it will take them a while to gel together as a back four.
It’s fantastic to see Michael Owen net the winner for us. We’ve swapped Tevez for Owen, saving us millions, but earning us absolute gold; in terms of Owen’s quality, if he can approach his form of old (and staying fit). I like the way we’ve handled him so far, nursing him onto the big stage rather than rushing him and expecting the world out of him. He gives us a different option, completely predatory in nature, and his experience and intelligent movement was the difference yesterday. Ferguson spoke about giving him more chances and it’s good to see him make the right noises ever since he joined United.
And finally, all praise must be reserved for Ryan Giggs. I wrote an article last week on the need for our old guard to call it quits, but I made a clear exception on Giggs. Today showed us why he still has a big role to play. I remain sceptical on his ability to play all ninety minutes on a regular basis. But he stood head and shoulders apart yesterday. The clear standout performer alongside Fletcher. He lacks the pace but his intelligence and ability to weave past players, as if in slow motion, was still on display — and almost surreal, in a way.
Three matches of real importance, i.e., Arsenal, Spurs and City, and nine points from the three. We eked out a win against Arsenal playing poorly. We beat Spurs in a commanding display, and we got the result against City despite the nervy nature of the contest. Chelsea as a threat loom large, following their thrashing of Spurs, but for now, we can be satisfied that we’ve passed our first acid test of this season.
Before I sign off, here’s the MOTD2 video of the derby, in full streaming goodness. Watch it before it’s taken down:
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