AFTER a 5-1 defeat at Manchester City in 1989 Sir Alex Ferguson drove home and went straight to bed. After losing this season’s two league derbies 7-1 on aggregate he must be temped to go straight to the Glazers and tell them restraint has had its day.
The roar from City’s Etihad Stadium was so pronounced that guests at hotels around Manchester Piccadilly station swore they could hear it, a couple of miles away. It could be heard in the thoughts of all United fans as they squared up to the reality that City outshone their men in both games with superior appetite and verve.
The shift in power was undeniable on a night when a core of City diehards displayed where the team’s soul resides. It can be found in Yaya Touré, Vincent Kompany and Gareth Barry, who were all indomitable. They laid claim to own the city, as they did with that 6-1 massacre at Old Trafford in October, which prompted Ferguson to say: “It’s the worst result in my history, ever.”
Worse, even, than 1989, when he recalled: “I was in total shock and completely gone.” All was not lost here. City must travel to Newcastle on Sunday while United welcome Swansea. Roberto Mancini seized on this to relieve the pressure on his players. United remain favourites, he claimed: “They have easier games. They are playing against Swansea and Sunderland.” City wrap it up at home to Queens Park Rangers, who lost 6-1 at Chelsea on Sunday, 24 hours after Newcastle had fallen 4-0 at Wigan.
So City are favourites. They have to be. Nor are they undeserving of that status after Ferguson rolled back the years with a vintage touchline challenge to Mancini. The jaw-jaw gestures exchanged by both men left City’s Italian manager rattled but had no lasting effect on Ferguson, who marched back to his seat. The memo to his own players had been sent: show your teeth, fight. But by then City were in control, despite United sending on Antonio Valencia, Danny Welbeck and Ashley Young.
City exuded determination and aggression. The game’s only goal came not from a dinking run by the reformed refusenik, Carlos Tévez, but a meaty header from Kompany after he had outjumped Chris Smalling from a Samir Nasri corner. It was a show of old-school, macho intent of the sort City’s 1968 title winning team could recognise.
The City side of Summerbee, Bell and Lee overcame the majesty of Best, Law and Charlton, then saw their club slide into shadow. Last night we felt an eruption of confidence in City’s rebirth, which has suffered many setbacks.
A positive will, faith in all their attacking players and the sense that United had come here for a draw all drove them on.
Tévez would not feature highly on a list of the blood, sweat and tears expended by City in pursuit of their first English title for 44 years. How could he, after 11 league appearances this season and a spell of gardening leave longer than any of Capability Brown’s horticultural projects?
If City’s Argentine strikers were playing trumps, Agüero won by bringing his famous father-in-law to this metropolitan melee. Nothing could be cooler than handing one of your complimentary tickets to Diego Maradona for a game that might decide the title race. The stats favour Agüero too: 22 league goals in 29 starts, to compare with Tévez’s four in five. Together, they ought to have been a mighty combination from August to May, not just at the season’s end.
City bristled with intent against a United side who deployed Wayne Rooney alone up front and assigned Park Ji-Sung to stop Yaya Touré’s rumbling midfield runs. That just left Aguero, Tévez, Samir Nasri and David Silva to deal with. Coping with Kompany proved too much for Smalling.
El Apache was absent when the hard work was done in this campaign, yet here he was being cheered louder than any City regular when his old club strode into Sheikh Mansour’s mansion.
The real heroes of City’s long battle against United’s power, though, have been Hart, Kompany, Micah Richards, Joleon Lescott, Yaya Touré, Barry, Silva and Agüero, another Argentine striker, but with a first-class attitude. Agüero’s work-rate is matched by Tévez but the younger of the pair displays an honesty and humility the Munich rebel is unable to emulate. Yet it seemed an age since City’s ignorance of title run-ins seemed to be their undoing. Autumn’s verve returned with their 12 goals against West Brom, Norwich and Wolves.
To recap: Tévez refused to warm-up in Bayern Munich on Sept 27, fled to Argentina, accused Mancini of treating him like “a dog” flew back, apologised, came off the bench to set up Nasri against Chelsea and then capitalised on Mario Balotelli’s dismissal against Arsenal to reclaim a first-team place, while less than “100 per cent”, according to Mancini.
The psychological boost was undeniable. Any resentments are no doubt muttered privately. All through this campaign City have had the heat on the melting pot at maximum to force all these talents into a winning whole. Balotelli and Tévez made it seem hard work. But, three games from the finish, City were able to call on two of the most elusive strikers in world football to maintain their counter-surge.
Any Premier League medal would glitter on the chests of Kompany, Hart or Agüero, but hang from Tévez’s neck more as a symbol of his personal power. In the end pragmatism prevailed, without disruption. City were restored to their old confidence and fluency and the noisy neighbours sent a memo that they now run this city.
United have endured through Ferguson’s managerial brilliance, the wisdom of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs and the promise of youngsters who were sometimes invisible in both games against City’s iron men. United remain the stronger club, with more stability and tradition, but the threat is real. Power is shifting. You could feel it move.