He came, he saw, he conquered. Glumly sat on the bench for 70 mins, Sergio Agüero was sent for just when his team looked like it needed some magic from somewhere. 20 minutes before Agüero’s introduction, James Milner had given City the lead with a sweetly struck shot that found the net via a deflection from Phil Jones, before a van Persie free kick was diverted into the net after an inadvertent bout of head tennis between Jones and City skipper, Vincent Kompany. And just as it looked like the game was going to peter out into a draw, up stepped super-sub Agüero, 10 minutes from the end. Picking up the ball just outside the penalty area, he powered past 3 United players before nearly tearing the net off of David de Gea’s goal – United supporters were left cursing the little genius; familiar scenes and familiar feelings of despair for Manchester United as the little Argentine denied them victory once again. It ended 2-1 to City – and what a crucial result it was.
In a sense, this was a Manchester derby that City absolutely had to win, to reassert the fact that although this was not their season, they will continue to be challenging for honors in seasons to come. Even though the quest to retain their trophy is almost definitely futile now, City still went toe-to-toe with United for much of the game, ably repelling United attacks, and carving out opportunities of their own, instead of giving up and rolling over. Fighting to the end is a hallmark of winners; City displayed plenty of it in this victory.
The phrase ‘laying down a marker’ is used relatively often in football (maybe even overused), but this match was indeed all about that. This was City laying down a marker for the future. As far as this season goes, despite their victory, and the fillip that it will be, it is terribly unlikely that the EPL title will be headed to the Etihad this season – United are still 12 points clear with 7 games to go and have a rather straightforward run-in; we have more chance of seeing Titus Bramble feature at the heart of England’s central defence than City winning the title this year. Instead, this was City sending out a message that they will definitely be back next season; United will have their work cut out for them retaining the title.
It was also a chance for City to demonstrate that they were definitely as good as, (or even superior to, if we wanted to push the envelope a little bit further) United. Throughout the season, United have demonstrated a ruthless consistency, something that City have not, but a lack of consistency must not be confused with quality. Mancini claimed before the game that the gap between the two sides was nowhere near the 15 points as reflected in the table – based on this showing he was right. In a one-off game, City are more than capable of matching, and beating, United. They are definitely not 15 points apart in terms of quality; this match proved that.
Of course, leagues are won by the most consistent team which essentially means the most focused team will win. This season United have been a lot more focused than City, especially in the games against mid-table sides, the so-called bread-and-butter games. Mancini attributed this to too many teams taking on United being so intimidated that they don’t dare to attack. Cowed, they have lost the game mentally even before they step onto the pitch, he claims. It might be plain whingeing, but if it’s true that United do have that aura and intimidation about them, then the effect could only have come about because of their immense track record – their history of winning. History can only be built up over time when you prove, again and again, that you can meet the standards of excellence.
In any domain, after the congratulations have died down, the euphoria worn off, the first-time winner is inevitably confronted by this question: “Can you do it again?”
It is difficult to consistently repeat success; even harder to improve upon it – which is why Sir Alex Ferguson’s achievements at United are so incredible. It is also exactly what Mancini needs to do at Man City. In the 2011-12 season, they won the EPL title as well as the FA Cup – but they haven’t kicked on this season; they haven’t improved. Or to be more precise, they haven’t improved enough. Mancini did add to his squad, but when all your competitors (except Arsenal, perhaps) around you are buying quality and bettering their squads, it’s vital to at least match them, else you deprove relative to everyone else. Mancini failed to improve his squad both in terms of player additions and player development and this season’s performance attests to that.
Nevertheless, based on this game, the signs are encouraging. City aren’t fading away; there is plenty of fight left in them, and their hearts and minds are set on becoming a permanent title challenger in the future. Beating United has also allowed them to virtually cement their grasp on second place in the league this season. Had they lost today’s game, they would have been separated from Chelsea and Spurs by just four points, with Arsenal just six points behind with a game in hand. It would have been a very nervous situation indeed. Now though, they have a 7 point advantage over Chelsea and Spurs, a gap that is a lot more comfortable. It also gives Mancini the freedom to rotate a few players in the next few matches as he tries to keep the squad fresh in their bid to retain the FA Cup.
On 9 Dec 2012, United travelled to the Etihad Stadium where they overpowered City 3-2 with a van Persie goal right at the death breaking City’s hearts. The Blues have never really recovered from that and United have gone on to dominate league proceedings from then on; victory last night in United’s own backyard must have been some consolation, (scant, but consolation, nevertheless) knowing that some measure of revenge has been exacted.
When United won at the Etihad Stadium, it was a message to City that they were out to reclaim the title and dead-serious about it. Now City have come to Old Trafford and in their triumph, sounded a warning to United that while they may have won this year’s battle, the war has only just begun.
The noisy neighbours are not going away any time soon.