You can safely ignore the majority of transfer rumour stories you read, but when it was confidently reported in March that Robin van Persie was on his way from Arsenal to Manchester City it was one of the potential moves that made a lot of sense.
Two months later it became ever clearer that the Dutch marksman was not interested in signing a new contract to stay with Arsenal and forever look over his shoulder at other clubs winning trophies when he was winning none. But instead of new champions City securing the Van Persie signature, it was the wily old fox from the red half of town, Sir Alex Ferguson, who got his hands on one of the world’s most coveted strikers.
The importance of United beating City to that signature was put into clear perspective on Sunday when Van Persie’s goal won the season’s first Manchester derby.
It was a strange goal, an injury-time free-kick deflected off Samir Nasri’s outstretched boot as the City player hid behind one of his own players in the wall. But it could be so immensely important when the title race narrows and the tension mounts over the final few weeks of the season.
City never did make a big signing during the summer. You could argue they didn’t really need to, but you could also argue that Mario Balotelli is an expensive liability, given too much attention by the British media and his indulgent manager alike. Perhaps a more shrewd manager would have disposed of Balotelli over the summer.
It was certainly a gamble for Roberto Mancini to pick Balotelli ahead of Carlos Tevez in Sunday’s match, and boy did the Italian disappoint.
His first-half lowlights included a scuffed free kick and then a decent opportunity from Gael Clichy’s pass which he failed to do justice to. When he was then involved in a promising attack, his own ball to Sergio Aguero was simply not good enough.
By now City were losing 2-0, and Mancini lost patience early in the second half when an attempted back-heel from Balotelli was easily read by Rio Ferdinand. So Balotelli came off and City started to play good football. A few minutes later, Yaya Toure’s goal got the home side back into the contest and it was all level when a fierce Pablo Zabaleta drive found the bottom corner of David de Gea’s net.
Then, disaster for City. In the final minute of injury time, Clichy tried to launch a move from a hopeless position rather than play a simple pass back to Joe Hart, and when he was dispossessed United countered swiftly, winning the free kick that proved a very sweet conclusion for the away side.
What’s really interesting at the moment is the battle for fourth spot, much as it was at this stage last season. With Chelsea finally winning a league game under Rafael Benitez, you suspect they’ll do enough to finish third, but it was Everton who ended this particular week fourth after a rousing finale against Tottenham.
Amazingly, there are eight teams just four points away from Everton’s points total. They include Tottenham and Arsenal, who were very lucky to beat West Brom on Saturday, and West Brom themselves. Swansea, Stoke and Norwich – who are also in the chasing pack – lack the class, surely, to challenge for a Champions League spot, but there are two other interesting teams caught up in the battle, and they are West Ham and Liverpool.
These two met each other in Sunday’s final game. Most predictions were for a Hammers win on home soil against a Liverpool team missing the suspended Luis Suarez. But with Jonjo Shelvey playing up front, and two attack-minded midfielders, Raheem Sterling and Steven Gerrard, just behind him, they were a consistent threat and grabbed an early goal through an awesome Glen Johnson strike.
It was West Ham who led at the break though. The consistently excellent Matt Jarvis caused havoc with a wicked cross headed into his own net by Gerrard after Mark Noble’s penalty had got the Hammers going. Yet somehow Liverpool engineered an impressive turnaround in the second half as West Ham tried to protect the lead and paid the price. The Reds are expected to sign a big-name striker in January, and with a favourable fixture list and some momentum behind them they could continue to make progress up the table.