Wednesday 21 February 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Manchester's El Cashico exposes poor quality of Old Firm equivalent

El Cashico shows up poor quality of Old Firm clash

Manchester City’s Kevin de Bruyne and Celtic’s Moussa Dembele celebrate scoring in their respective derbies — but the Old Firm clash was so one-sided that there was little on offer to entertain. Photos: Getty
Manchester City’s Kevin de Bruyne and Celtic’s Moussa Dembele celebrate scoring in their respective derbies — but the Old Firm clash was so one-sided that there was little on offer to entertain. Photos: Getty

Eamonn Sweeney

Call it Derby Saturday. It was as though, in the aftermath of the Olympics and All-Ireland semi-finals, this double bill had been expressly provided to put soccer centre stage once more.

At Old Trafford, you had El Cashico, a match containing one of the most expensive collections of talent ever assembled. Over at Celtic Park you had the resumption of the Old Firm clash, something with an undeniable appeal to anyone with an interest in the history and traditions of the game.

Proceedings in Scotland kicked off half-an-hour earlier than those in England. Conveniently for those who dreaded the prospect of flicking between the two matches, Celtic looked to have things wrapped up when they plundered two goals before 11 minutes had elapsed at Old Trafford. The Sky Sports reactions to the first goal - "This is Rangers' Achilles heel, they can't defend simple crosses . . . Who needs Leigh Griffiths when you have Moussa Dembele, Brendan Rodgers' first signing from Fulham" - pretty much summed up the quality of the stuff on offer.

Moving to the Manchester derby was like switching from a movie starring Diana Dors to one starring Marilyn Monroe. The Guardiola influence was immediately apparent in the way City moved the ball but the route taken for their first goal, scored by Kevin De Bruyne - a long ball, a header on and an emphatic finish - would have been familiar to Matt Busby, Joe Mercer or Tommy Docherty.

By the time Kelechi Iheanacho made it 2-0 in the 36th minute, after a passing move more in keeping with the tiki-taka beliefs of the new boss, you could see where Jose Mourinho's dislike of Pep Guardiola stems from. The football played by the Spaniard's teams is a kind of rebuke to the more pragmatic values represented by the Portuguese. As De Bruyne and David Silva weaved their patterns, Paul Pogba was like the Maginot Line - big, French, expensive and utterly redundant because the enemy just went around him.

Over in Glasgow, Rangers pulled one back and for a few minutes threatened to restore a competitive edge to a match which had begun to resemble an Orange Parade or a 1916 Commemoration, a bloodless reconstruction of something that doesn't mean much anymore.

That goal was followed immediately by one created by United's secret weapon on the day, a player who didn't cost them a penny for the simple reason that he plays for City. Claudio Bravo's magnificent impersonation of Edward Scissorhands when trying to deal with a routine ball into the box presented Zlatan Ibrahimovic with a chance which he took with typical aplomb. It was as though one of those practical jokers who sometimes manage to insert themselves into a team photo had stayed on and donned the City keeper's jersey.

As half-time dawned in Manchester, Scott Sinclair was putting Celtic 3-1 ahead and finishing things as a contest. There are those who would oppose the authenticity of the Old Firm derby to the big-money hype of its Mancunian equivalent. But for football to be real it needs to be competitive and, on that basis, there's nothing more phony than the Scottish Premier League. A prawn sandwich might not have the same street cred as a deep-fried Mars bar, but it tastes a lot better. The Bhoys looked Bhrilliant because Rangers were Bhrutal.

City looked much less comfortable in the second half at Old Trafford, not least because Bravo seemed determined to prove that every club deserves their own Massimo Taibi. When the ball was played back to him, he stuttered and started like Manuel from Fawlty Towers, wondering which table to serve before Basil hits him on the head. Wayne Rooney nipped in and might have equalised had Bravo not won the ball back with a tackle which might have produced a free if it had happened outside the box - and a red card had it been perpetrated by an outfield player.

By now, Rangers were down to 10 and Celtic were up to five, Dembele completing a hat-trick which should soon ensure his inclusion in a song to be murdered by a ballad group near you. Right now he's as popular in the green half of Glasgow as that man convicted for grain robbery in Galway.

The perception that the momentum had moved in United's direction was perhaps disproved by the fact that City continued to enjoy the better chances. David de Gea made a double save from Fernandinho and the excellent Nicolas Otamendi before De Bruyne, who looked worth any amount of money on this showing, saw his shot hit the inside of the post and roll along the line before somehow staying out.

Yet this failure to conclusively nail down the coffin lid did leave you with the suspicion that City might regret their profligacy. Like a Russian boxer at the Olympics, United might have been taking a pounding but they hadn't given up hopes of getting a result. City decided to batten down the hatches for the last 10 minutes and United launched the kind of aerial bombardment which would have drawn severe criticism if indulged by Martin O'Neill's Irish team or, for that matter, United under Louis van Gaal. It didn't work and City held out easily enough.

There were times when United looked like a Premier League team playing a side from La Liga away in the Champions League. Had the sides switched keepers it might well have ended 6-0. But there was hope for Mourinho in the form of Ibrahimovic, who looked 30-plus-goals-a-season sharp, and Marcus Rashford - who troubled John Stones when introduced. Stones looked ponderous at times, as though he was being forced to physically carry some of that enormous transfer fee.

It was intriguing and thrilling, and the renewal of the rivalry of both clubs and managers should provide endless fascination. Celtic, on the other hand, would have got a better game from Dundalk - or maybe even Bhohemians or Bhray Wanderers. When their fans have finished celebrating they might reflect on the fact that only a Rangers resurgence can lend some meaning to an increasingly pointless league. Right now, the whole spectacle looks so simple-minded that when Celtic took off James Forrest you almost expected them to bring on Dougie Gump.

The only thing wrong with El Cashico is that there isn't another one next weekend. That's football; heaven and hell in the space of one afternoon.

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