Imagine the Premier League throne – a sort of golden and garish concoction from the inner brains of Richard Scudamore, a luxurious anti-thesis of the Lutheran shape and design of the iron throne. Well, at last, City have ascended it, after circling it for months, almost reverently. And it seems Pep Guardiola and his team are there to stay.
At Old Trafford on Wednesday, the question was how long Manchester United could press their opponents, retain possession quickly and confront their city rivals’ supremacy in the north and across England? Time and again they won possession inside the first 20 minutes in a game that was played in tight spaces and intermittently at high speed.
After their 4-0 defeat at the hands of Everton last weekend, United had been soul-searching. There was little soul-searching at Old Trafford as they welcomed the sky-high title favorites and a team from the Etihad campus, across town. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team summoned enough gumption to play a hugely consequential derby with the gravitas it befitted. In fact, they had City’s nerves jangling for a while.
It wasn’t that United were transformed from their weekend procession at Goodison Park, but they at least had a combativeness and spirit about them that had been lacking in recent weeks. Perhaps they were stung by the criticism over the lengthening downturn at the club and the hosts succeeded in making the game a battle and negating much of City, which had been tasked by Guardiola to ‘be ourselves.’
From the onset, City did look jittery: Vincent Kompany clattered players and proved that, while a great leader, he can also be a liability at the back. Oleksandr Zinchenko played with the gay naivety of a youngster and the Citizens repeatedly spilled possession in midfield. On the touchline, Guardiola’s frustration grew over poor touches and equally poor decision-making.
In parts it was an encouraging first half for United – Rashford’s shot whizzed dangerously over the bar in response to Bernardo Silva’s rasping attempt earlier, but as the half-hour mark passed there was a dangerous sense that it was all of City’s design – that Guardiola and Co had left their opponents an illusion – some dignity and some sort of say in the match – before they'd inevitably burn out.
The hosts had in fact created few openings. Their improvement was just that – an illusion, a valiant display of grit and commitment. Slowly, Guardiola’s eleven began to probe and poke, resulting in the half’s most intricate play: David Silva, free at the edge of the box, teed up Raheem Sterling, who shimmied past two United players, but his finish was straight at David de Gea.
The sumptuous cramped-space virtuosity of Silva and Sterling foreshadowed United’s downfall after the break. They still pressed City high up the pitch, but didn’t engage their opponents in defence, almost purposely backing off in the face of light-blue waves. In the 54th minute, Bernardo Silva duly obliged with a low drive past De Gea.
Twelve minutes later, United ceded possession in the opposing half. Sterling charged forward, carrying the ball at his feet across half the field. He then played a weighted pass to Leroy Sane, who smashed it past a hapless De Gea. City’s 2-0 lead was the logical consequence of the total dominance of a vastly superior team.
The two goals in quick succession were almost understated, belying the significance they could have. They were season-defining, yet not per se stirring. Where was the thrill, the drama and the tension of goals that could mark history? At least, the match, and perhaps, the league were over as a contest. It was now tempting to wonder whether the goalscoring would ever to stop.
But City were no longer pressed and relented against an impotent United. Brazilian midfielder Fred endured a horrid performance. He spotted passes few City players would have. His game was emblematic for a club that is ailing at various levels. The 2-0 scoreline was United’s seventh defeat in nine matches, the club’s worst streak since 1962, and a symptom of the general malaise that has enwrapped the club in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era. Meanwhile, Wednesday's result could well suggest a dynasty is being built across town.
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Updated Date: Apr 25, 2019 11:25:59 IST