The lineups dictated the opening phase: Manchester United opted for experience and hard work in midfield with Giggs, Scholes, Park and Carrick. No doubt the plan would have been to remain compact in the face of Manchester City’s attacks and look for a break. However, it seemed that the less experienced home side were a little in awe of the occasion and Manchester United started strongly, with a couple of half-hearted penalty appeals as shots were blocked.
Manchester City were the team that needed the win, yet it took them 15 minutes to settle and finally seize possession of the ball. The game settled into the expected pattern of City possession with Silva, Nasri, Tevez and Aguero, up against a solid defensive and counterattacking approach from United.
City strong on one wing, United weak on the other: Nasri started the game very well and looked threatening, but he was playing on the stronger side of the Manchester United defence, where Evra was protected in turns by Giggs and Park. On the other side, Smalling and Jones were the weak link, unprotected by Nani, yet City had no real threat on this flank. Early in the season Nasri had played particularly well on the left with Clichy on the overlap, so Mancini should have switched Nasri to the other flank to take advantage of this.
Smalling appalling: Yet again, Smalling was found wanting. There have been plenty of examples of him letting his man get free to score an unopposed goal this season, most notably in high profile matches such as v Frei in Basel and v Aguero in an earlier derby. Again he made a costly mistake, losing Kompany and getting caught under the ball as City made it 1-0. These errors are so frequent that questions simply have to be asked if he is up to defending at this level – plenty of evidence suggests otherwise.
Aside: Isn’t it funny how nobody criticises errors in man-marking at set pieces?
Nani and Neville illuminate Fergie’s thinking: That Nani started ahead of Valencia was a surprise in itself, but in the buildup to the game Gary Neville explained that Ferguson would have selected him because he gave Clichy a hard time at the Emirates. No matter that that game was in 2010, or that Valencia’s form has been much better than Nani’s of late, or that Nani’s performance on that day over two years ago was greatly exaggerated due to Arsenal’s thoroughly awful defending and Almunia flapping a Nani cross into his own net. If this really is the way Ferguson picks his team (and Neville should know), then some of the sheen comes off Ferguson’s reputation, as that approach is beyond ridiculous.
The “title decider” managed to leave us with two teams tied at the top of the table with two games yet to play. Such is the nature of hype. Having said that, City do have the goal difference advantage, and the momentum from not only doing the double over their rivals but also reeling them in from an eight point lead merely three weeks ago.
Manchester City have withered under pressure once already this season, and so now have Manchester United. Is the title decided? No, but it’s very, very close to being so.