Premier League Champions against the Premier League big spenders – Carlos Tevez against his former club – derby day in Manchester was the setting for the most eagerly anticipated clash of the English season so far, and it didn’t disappoint, going down as one of the best matches in Premier League history.
And despite the multi million worth of talent on display it was two (experienced) products of United’s youth system and one free transfer that had the overall influence on the game.
In a breathless, pulsating encounter the home side drew first blood – Micah Richards looked troubled by Wayne Rooney and when a ball from Evra found his in-form teammate in the box, Rooney demonstrated a clever shift of feet and slid the ball into the net with barely 2 minutes on the clock.
It settled the Champions who began to look fluent and dangerous, with the combination play of Rooney and Berbatov a real delight. But despite the promising play up top it was City who struck next – Ben Foster’s indecision had already almost cost United a goal as his clearance hit Tevez, and his decision to come wide to try and contest a ball with the fomer Red Devils forward was to be severely punished. The Argentinian showed the sort of endeavour that once made the home side sing with joy, however the Stretford end could only recoil in horror as Tevez slipped the ball to Barry who coolly levelled the scores with just over quarter of an hour played.
The visitors composed themselves and were entirely comfortable for the rest of the half – indeed, the only incidents of note came from the terraces. Only three weeks ago City officials had made a plea for United fans not to sing an alleged racist chant concerning Adebayor, and of course it was only just over 18 months ago that City fans had helped create such a dignified and respectful atmosphere at the game that commemorated 50 years since the Munich disaster. However City fans in one fell swoop disgraced themselves once more with repeated renditions of the “Tevez hates Munichs” chants.
United followers however were eager for their side to do their talking on the pitch after the first half petered out and no doubt with a Fergie hairdryer as inspiration managed to make the first statement of the second period. Ryan Giggs and Patrice Evra combined well and the Welshman crossed for a Scot, Darren Fletcher to restore the lead via his head and Gareth Barrys hand.
A midfield mix up less than 5 minutes later lead to an equaliser – Evra’s header was wayward and Craig Bellamy cut in, unchallenged by O’Shea to score an excellent 20 yarder into the top corner. That Tevez was again with an assist added further salt into the wound.
This equaliser had quite the opposite effect as the first half one had as United bombarded the City goal. Ryan Giggs was chief creator as he undid his local rivals with incisive pass after incisive pass and weaving run after weaving run. In an attempt to add more penetration to the side Sir Alex Ferguson introduced Antonio Valencia for Park and United found it, but through the growing influence of their number 11.
Giggs created three clear cut headed chances for Dimitar Berbatov – the first two were saved on the stretch by Shay Given and the third was headed over. With doubts over Berbatov’s form in front of goal Fergie brought on Michael Owen for the Bulgarian. And United did almost instantly regain their lead but it was from the same route as before – as a Giggs free kick found Fletcher again, who again headed in. There were 9 minutes left and although there was always a danger that the defensive lapses that had reared their head twice would come again, there was surely enough time to see the game out. Anderson did have an opportunity to seal the result but his 25 yard drive bent just wide.
However it was not to be – the game was entering stoppage time and Rio Ferdinand made a suicidal lazy pass on the half way line which was intercepted by Petrov. Petrov threaded the pass to Bellamy who blitzed Ferdinand for pace and with Foster again unsure whether to come or stay, the Wales captain took full advantage and slid the ball home to send the away fans into raptures.
The home side piled forward in what seemed a vain attempt to take the lead for the fourth time and Rooney fired over with what seemed the last attempt. In the 6th minute of stoppage time, City only half cleared their lines and the ball dropped to Giggs, who fizzed a sensational pass to Owen, who had until then been almost anonymous. Owen managed to keep his cool under the weight of incredible pressure and then converted past Given.
There were scenes of frustration from City officials who couldn’t understand where the added time had come from and it was to an extent understandable, even taking into consideration City’s celebrations after the goal and a substitution for United.
And Craig Bellamy ruined all of his good work on the pitch when he needlessly approached a pitch invader and appeared to slap him.
United deserved the win after battering City in the second half but will doubtless be relieved after several defensive catastrophies – City do have a right to be aggrieved but the cost to their reputation after the conduct of their supporters and players could yet be greater than the result. Whether the FA have the courage of consistency is doubtful.
Ratings : Foster 4, O’Shea 6, Ferdinand 5, Vidic 7, Evra 8, Park 7 (Valencia 5), Anderson 8 (Carrick), Fletcher 9, *Giggs 9, Rooney 7, Berbatov 7 (Owen).