Manchester City deservedly ran out 2-1 winners at the home of their rivals in one of the most eagerly-anticipated Manchester Derbies in recent years. Not many of these games have lived up to expectations in recent years, and with this contest attracting more attention than ever before, thanks largely to the presence of Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, the neutrals watching were not disappointed.
In the opening stages, City bossed United in every part of the pitch, keeping the ball for long periods of time and winning it back almost as soon as they lost it. They harassed the United players and forced a string of errors.
United, on the other hand, did not have the same tenacity, allowing City’s players to have time on the ball. This soon led to the opening goal, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, on his first start for the club, failing to close down Aleksandar Kolarov, who played a long ball up field that was flicked on by Kelechi Iheanacho. In a rare lapse of concentration, Daley Blind misjudged the flick on, allowing Kevin De Bruyne to nip in past him before clinically slotting the ball past David De Gea. Things got worse for United 22 minutes later, when De Bruyne’s shot bounced off the post into the path of the unmarked Iheanacho.
For Guardiola things were going perfectly, with his players thriving in his system. Then, after 40 minutes, things changed. Defending a United free kick, John Stones collided with debutant goalkeeper Claudio Bravo. This caused the ‘keeper to drop the ball into the path of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who exquisitely met the ball on the volley with his right foot, putting it into the City net.
Suddenly, it was game on, and the United fans knew it. The atmosphere, already emotionally charged, became even more electric. Urged on by the crowd, United now found themselves pushing for an equaliser.
Late in the half Ibrahimovic was presented with another golden opportunity, after another mix up between the City goalkeeper and a defender, this time Bacary Sagna. Jesse Lingard took advantage of the mistake to tee up Ibrahimovic who, not seeing John Stones and thinking the net was empty, slid the ball towards the goal. In the end it was easy for the young defender.
In the second half, Mourinho made two much needed changes, bringing on Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera in place of Lingard and Mkhitaryan. The changes had an instant impact, and United started the half brightly, with Rashford in particular causing City problems.
On 55 minutes there was controversy, Bravo involved again. In danger of gifting a chance to Wayne Rooney, the ‘keeper jumped into a 50-50 challenge, studs up and catching the United striker. United wanted a penalty but didn’t get it, and although there was no intent to harm the player, on another day Bravo may not have been so lucky.
As the half progressed the game became more open and, at times, was end to end. Rashford was unlucky when a decent effort deflected of Ibrahimovic, who was standing in an offside position. De Bruyne was unlucky, too, having a shot cannon off the inside of the post and, somehow, bounce across the United goal line and out of play. There were more chances for both teams in the second half, and although United pressed for the equaliser, City looked dangerous every time they countered and deserved their win.
Before the game much was made of the tactical battle between Guardiola and Mourinho. In the end, Pep out-thought his counterpart and now boasts eight wins in 17 against the ‘special one’, with Mourinho notching up three.
Mourinho got it woefully wrong in the first half, as he acknowledged himself after the game. Though it is true some of his players didn’t perform, his decision to try to contain City was a disaster.
Bringing back Lingard after injury was a gamble that didn’t pay off, with the winger looking well of the pace. Mkhitaryan, also, had a poor game. In hindsight, Rashford and Martial should have started; or even Juan Mata, who has a good record in big games. Of course, this is all if’s and but’s, and the reality is United were second best. After a promising start to the season, Mourinho now has much to think about, and will be hoping that his team have not been dealt a psychological blow.
In terms of Guardiola and City, they will be delighted. Yes, their defence looked shaky at times, and yes, Claudio Bravo may not have looked convincing. However, it must be pointed out that this was a victory earned without star man Sergio Aguero and captain Vincent Kompany. Put in that perspective, the manner of their win is even more impressive.
If City can keep Kompany fit, chances are the uncertainty in defence will soon be sorted out. And even if it isn’t, can anyone really see a team capable of outscoring this City side? It looks ominous for the other teams now that we have seen how quickly the players are adapting to Guardiola’s methods.
The truth is, and it is a hard truth for United fans, City had an answer for everything yesterday, and could have had more than two goals, even in the second half when they eased off to protect the lead. Evidence from this game suggests they will take some stopping.