Rashford gives United hope as City sleepwalk into Guardiola era
Man City 0-1 Man Utd
Manuel Pellegrini was adamant, if slightly unconvincing. Despite Marcus Rashford's winning goal for Manchester United, which inflicted Manchester City's fifth home league defeat of the season, the Chilean insisted he remained in control of his team's destiny.
It is clearly a loose grip, however. Pellegrini has just eight more Premier League games in charge before handing over the reins to Pep Guardiola, but if his players continue to perform as dismally as they did against United, Heaven knows what the Bayern Munich coach will inherit when he arrives at the Etihad Stadium in June.
At this rate, Guardiola will be faced with a campaign in the Europa League and a squad in need of major rebuilding.
The fact that United won here for the first time since December 2012 with a team that has struggled to display any style or consistency all season was as much an indictment of City's decline as the home side's malaise.
But a City team which began the season with five straight Premier League victories, on the back of a £150m summer spending spree, is now clinging on to fourth place, having won just three of their last 10 games in all competitions (one of those only on penalties).
City have collected four points from a possible 18, won none of their nine fixtures this season against the current top six and lost 17 of the last 18 league games in which they trailed at half-time, drawing the other.
So if Pellegrini really does have control, then somebody should tell his players who - Sergio Aguero aside - performed as if they could not care less about finishing first, fourth or sixth.
"I don't think I lose any control," Pellegrini said. "The attitude of the team today reflects that they are all involved. It is not the best way to finish the season but I am happy with the attitude.
"The players are focused and we continue in the fourth position. We have 24 points to play for."
This was a crucial fixture for City, however. A home win would have sent United seven points off the pace in the race for fourth with City and West Ham, yet the away victory leaves the three clubs now separated by just a point.
United are capable of falling at the next hurdle, as they have often done following a positive result this season, but City appeared a team running on empty and, with the distraction of a Champions League quarter-final against Paris Saint-Germain, there is a real danger that they will slip away from the top four.
For Louis van Gaal, though, this three points keeps his team's hopes alive and the Dutchman insists that United's remaining fixtures can tilt the balance in their favour.
"I said that we must win this game and we have done it, so I am very happy," Van Gaal said. "Otherwise the gap was too big if they had won or it was a draw.
"Now it is in our hands. We have to win our games. We have more home matches than away matches and we don't lose often at Old Trafford.
"I don't think we have had a lot of luck this season and now we have a big result, so we have a big possibility."
There was no luck in United's victory, however. Rashford's goal, after the 18-year-old made a fool of Martin Demichelis, should have been followed by a penalty on the stroke of half-time after the forward was nudged over by the Argentinian.
Referee Michael Oliver waved away United's appeals but, aside from an Aguero header which rattled the post in the second half, City barely threatened to lay a glove on Van Gaal's team.
But despite exiting the Europa League with a 1-1 draw at home to Liverpool on Thursday evening, United appeared the fresher, hungrier team, with the absence of the dropped Marouane Fellaini injecting more pace and purpose.
City, without the injured defenders Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Otamendi, simply could not get going, with the loss during the game to injury of Raheem Sterling (groin) and goalkeeper Joe Hart (calf) further scuppering their prospects.
Sterling and Hart will be assessed today, but it is unlikely that either will be fit to report for England duty in the friendlies against Germany and the Netherlands.
Rashford will link up with England U-20s for their game against Canada at Doncaster on Sunday, but it surely will not be long before he merits serious consideration for a senior call-up if he continues to impress for United.
His goal, on 16 minutes, displayed class and awareness beyond his years, as he received the ball from Juan Mata before escaping Demichelis with a turn of pace that enabled him to have time to guide his shot beyond Hart and into the far corner.
"Rashford is very quick and Demichelis looked like the years are catching up with him," remarked Van Gaal, with some understatement. "He was a very good defender, he was my centre-back at Bayern Munich, but that is the life of football."
Demichelis had a bad day and was replaced by Wilfried Bony early in the second half as Pellegrini attempted to inject some urgency and attacking threat into his team.
But with Daley Blind and Michael Carrick outstanding for United, the visitors were able to hold firm and see out the game for a crucial victory.
City simply had no fight, but that has been the case for months, so do not expect them to dredge themselves back from here.
The question now is will it be United, West Ham, or both, who reel them in.
Independent News Service