Wednesday 28 September 2016

First blood to Pep's free-flowing City as derby delivers in spades

Manchester United 1 Manchester City 2

Daniel Taylor

Published 11/09/2016 | 02:30

‘For a club with United’s ambitions, it was startling to hear Jose Mourinho complain that some of his players could not cope with the derby pressures’ Photo: PA
‘For a club with United’s ambitions, it was startling to hear Jose Mourinho complain that some of his players could not cope with the derby pressures’ Photo: PA

It was a breathless, exhilarating way to start the new era of Mancunian rivalry and, at the final whistle, Pep Guardiola could be seen pumping his fists in celebration.

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His team had held out and Claudio Bravo, his new goalkeeper, had been spared after a debut that could conceivably have wrecked all their outstanding work elsewhere on the pitch.

Kelechi Iheanacho of Manchester City (L) celebrates scoring his sides second goal with his teammate Nolito. Photo: Getty
Kelechi Iheanacho of Manchester City (L) celebrates scoring his sides second goal with his teammate Nolito. Photo: Getty

Bravo will not always be so fortunate if this eccentric performance is an accurate measure of what is to come but, on the balance of play, it was difficult not to feel the more sophisticated team had won. The first oles could be heard after only 34 minutes from the corner of Old Trafford that was splashed in blue. A few moments later, Kelechi Iheanacho doubled City's lead and at that stage it was difficult to remember a more one-sided derby since 2011 when Roberto Mancini's team scored six here, Mario Balotelli unveiled his 'Why Always Me?' T-shirt and Alex Ferguson was driven away in a state of shock.

Unfortunately for City, it was not too long afterwards that Bravo's first attempt to catch the ball led to Zlatan Ibrahimovic pulling one back and thereafter the away team's superiority had to be balanced by the overwhelming suspicion that Jose Mourinho's men had sussed out the opposition were relying on an accident-prone goalkeeper. Mourinho was convinced United should have had a penalty in the second half, with Bravo implicated again, and Marcus Rashford's introduction at half-time immediately provided a more threatening edge. The home side gave everything in the search for an equaliser and it will not soothe their disappointment that they contributed to a thrilling contest.

Their problem was they came up against a side that moved the ball with a rare combination of speed, fluidity and intelligence. David Silva, a brilliantly measured footballer, chose a good day to put in one of his more refined performances. Nolito menaced on the left and Kevin De Bruyne, scorer of the first goal, added his own refined touches. If United occasionally looked slow in thought and movement, it was because their opponents passed the ball so stylishly.

Sergio Aguero might have been suspended but, attacking-wise, City were the more creative team and there were plenty of times in the second half when they could have added more goals. Leroy Sane, a substitute, slotted in seamlessly on his debut. De Bruyne struck the post in one breakaway move and Guardiola could also eulogise afterwards about the competitive courage of his team. Aleksandar Kolarov, he reported, finished the match with a front tooth missing. Nicolas Otamendi's head was bandaged and Guardiola identified the combative Fernando, another substitute, as the outstanding player of the second half.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United is tackled by John Stones of Manchester City. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United is tackled by John Stones of Manchester City. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

More than anything though, this was a glimpse into the free-flowing football that Guardiola wants from all his teams, the irony being that when the opening goal arrived, after 15 minutes, it had its origins in a good, old-fashioned whack up-field. Kolarov cleared the ball 60 yards, Iheanacho applied the flick and De Bruyne expertly did the rest, showing quicker anticipation than Daley Blind, steadying himself and firing a precise shot into the bottom corner. The long ball, the flick-on and a goal - not exactly classic Guardiola but, for City, a thing of beauty nonetheless.

Blind had been badly exposed and it was the same player, later in the half, who played Iheanacho onside for the second goal after De Bruyne's diagonal left-footed shot had came back off the post.

Unfortunately for Bravo, United had reasonable suspicions before the match that he might be susceptible and they were proven correct. This was the keeper's introduction to English football following his £17m (€20m) move from Barcelona and perhaps, in hindsight, it was a mistake from Guardiola not to ease him in against West Ham a couple of weekends ago. Yet Guardiola was still entitled to expect his new goalkeeper to catch the free-kick that Wayne Rooney pumped into the penalty area in the 42nd minute. He collided with John Stones, dropped the ball at Ibrahimovic's feet and was on the floor when the Swede skimmed his volley inside the near post.

Incredibly, Ibrahimovic had another two chances before half-time. The first a header that went straight at Bravo and on the second occasion he had more time than he realised with the goalkeeper out of position. Bravo looked a danger to his own team and was fortunate that the referee, Mark Clattenburg, decided to be lenient 11 minutes into the second half when the goalkeeper threw himself, studs-up, into a challenge on Rooney.

Mourinho also argued afterwards his team should have been awarded another penalty, for an alleged handball by Otamendi, but it was the Bravo challenge that irked him the most, believing it should have been a red card, too.

United's struggles in the first half could be summed up by Mourinho taking off Jesse Lingard and Henrikh Mkhitaryan at half-time, though he made it clear afterwards they were not the only ones guilty of "really poor individual performances". Marouane Fellaini was moved further forwards, with Rooney shifting to the right and Rashford patrolling the left. The home team poured forwards but they always looked vulnerable at the back and, for a club with United's ambitions, it was startling to hear Mourinho complain that some of his players could not cope with the derby pressures.

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