Thursday 24 May 2018

United fightback stuns champions-elect

Manchester City 2 Manchester United 3

Chris Smalling celebrates after scoring Manchester United’s winning goal in the Manchester derby at the Etihad Stadium yesterday. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images
Chris Smalling celebrates after scoring Manchester United’s winning goal in the Manchester derby at the Etihad Stadium yesterday. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images

Daniel Taylor

For a long while, Manchester City had it sewn up. Or, at least, they thought they did. Blue smoke bombs were being let off. The first euphoric chants of "championees" could be heard and the Etihad was overdosing on schadenfreude given the history of these teams and the prospect of a title-winning victory that would never be forgotten in this divided city.

What followed was extraordinary. Manchester United scored, then added another and, finally, a third to complete an improbable feat of escapology against the Premier League's champions-in-waiting. From 2-0 down to 3-2 up in the space of 16 second-half minutes - the game had been turned upside down and City will have to wait a little longer before the coronation.

It was an wild, eccentric comeback after a calamitous first-half performance from José Mourinho's team. Vincent Kompany and Ilkay Gundogan had both scored for City and it was difficult to keep count of the number of other chances for the home side to start the celebrations early.

United certainly rode their luck, in particular when Ashley Young's studs-up lunge on the substitute Sergio Aguero should have resulted in a penalty and a red card. Yet this was a tremendous recovery from the team in red, and if Guardiola's players defend this way in the return leg of their Champions League tie against Liverpool on Tuesday, their chances of reaching the semi-final will be non-existent.

That is the match that really counts for Guardiola. City's manager even took the calculated gamble here of putting Kevin de Bruyne on the bench. Gabriel Jesus and Kyle Walker were also rested with Tuesday's assignment in mind and Guardiola resisted any temptation to fast-track the fit-again Aguero into the starting line-up.

For United, the indignities would have been considerable and it might have been a rout if Raheem Sterling had not endured one of those days in front of goal. Sterling had two golden chances during that spell in the first half when the goals arrived and City's supporters must have felt like the blood in their veins had been transformed into red wine. David Silva's passes on both occasions were so beautifully weighted it felt almost impudent to miss but Sterling put the first one over the crossbar and then repeated the trick three minutes later.

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire

The most alarming part for United was the collective loss of nerve once Kompany, always a man for the big occasion, had surged through a congested penalty area to head in Leroy Sané's corner for the opening goal. Kompany was too decisive, too strong and too determined for Smalling, who realised he was beaten and resorted to grabbing his opponent's shirt. It made no difference and once Kompany had powered in his header it must have been startling for Mourinho to see the way his team unravelled before half-time.

Sterling's finishing might be erratic but he was always a menace. Bernardo Silva was another elusive opponent, whether he was operating through the middle or flitting out to the right wing, and Sané's elegant left-sided forays were another prominent feature. On top of everything else, City ought to have been awarded an early penalty after Young tired to cut out one of Sané's low crosses, slipped to the ground and jutted out his hand to divert the ball away from danger. Add in Sterling's misses and the first half could have been an even more harrowing ordeal for Mourinho's team.

As it was, it came almost as a surprise that they restricted themselves to Kompany's header and the follow-up goal, six minutes later, when Gundogan turned brilliantly inside the penalty area to elude Nemanja Matic and took his shot early, stabbing the ball past De Gea at an angle. Gundogan also had a headed opportunity late in the first half and, five minutes after the interval, took aim again with a shot that flicked off the angle of crossbar and post.

Yet it was inconceivable that United would continue playing so badly and that was the moment Mourinho's team, almost out of nothing, started to assert a new sense of authority and punish City for their wastefulness.

Manchester United's Paul Pogba celebrates after the match. Photo: Russell Cheyne/Reuters
Manchester United's Paul Pogba celebrates after the match. Photo: Russell Cheyne/Reuters

Until that stage, Pogba had been over-run in midfield and Alexis Sánchez had found it difficult to make any kind of favourable impression. These were the moments, however, when United's A-listers reiterated their status as elite performers. Unfortunately for City, it was also a reminder that Nicolás Otamendi is too often a weak link in defence. The home team were vulnerable for Pogba's first goal from the moment Sánchez drew Otamendi out to the right wing and then sped away from him. Ander Herrera cushioned the cross into Pogba's path and the comeback was on.

It was amazing how quickly the game changed and United were level in their next attack. This time Sánchez crossed from the left and Pogba had stolen away from Otamendi to apply the decisive header.

Were United happy to settle for a draw? Not a chance. In the 69th minute Sánchez floated a free-kick into the penalty area and Smalling was suddenly alone to turn in the decisive goal.

Observer

Manchester City's Sergio Aguero misses a chance to score. Photo: Lee Smith/Action Images via Reuters
Manchester City's Sergio Aguero misses a chance to score. Photo: Lee Smith/Action Images via Reuters

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