United breathe life into title race
MANCHESTER CITY 0
MANCHESTER UNITED 1
PAUL SCHOLES gave Manchester United the points with a free header in the third minute of stoppage-time, but that belated bit of excitement could not conceal the fact that Manchester is no longer where it is at this season.
This most mundane of derbies, despite being the most eagerly anticipated for years, only served to prove it.
Derbies generally struggle to live up to their billing and this one had no chance of matching the hype and hope that went before, yet until Scholes applied his splendid coup de grace, it bore an unexpected resemblance to a mere end-of-season game.
United already feel their season has ended for all Alex Ferguson's best attempts to unsettle Chelsea. Even though they played as if they knew the title is on its way to London, the visitors still managed to create the best chances. They could easily have been a goal or two up at half-time, and just minutes before Scholes stuck away Patrice Evra's cross Dimitar Berbatov had Shay Given scrambling with a header from a similar position that flashed just wide, so City could not say they were not warned.
They have no excuse for not knowing about Scholes' matchwinning abilities in any case, or about United's propensity for scoring late goals.
This was the third time this season United have scored a last-minute winner in Manchester derbies alone. “We keep on to the end, that's part of the history of this club and it's a fantastic quality to have,” Ferguson said. “I thought we deserved to win the game, no question about that, but I must be honest I couldn't see a goal coming.”
Ferguson was right about United deserving the points. City were hugely disappointing, simply not doing enough to hurt their rivals, inspire confidence in their ability to force their way into the Champions League or convince doubters that Roberto Mancini is on the right track. The manager had appealed for a rousing end to the season. He did not get it, and was left deflated. A glorious defeat would have been preferable to such a tame surrender.
Apart from a fairly routine save from a Carlos Tevez freekick in the first half, Edwin van der Sar was rarely extended. “I'm angry as well as disappointed,” Mancini said. “It was not a good performance, but we still have four games to play and fourth place is still likely to be decided by the game against Tottenham.”
He hopes. City can and doubtless will buy big if they have a Champions League place to look forward to over the summer, though to secure that they must get more from this season's big acquisitions.
There was almost nothing from Emmanuel Adebayor or Tevez, with the latter not only failing to tweak Ferguson's nose but giving a vivid demonstration of why he was not automatically considered worth snapping up for £25m at Old Trafford. He did not miss any easy chances or anything — City did not manage to create any easy chances — he simply ran about a lot without managing to impose himself on the game.
Craig Bellamy did not have one of his better games either. He certainly applied one of his worst finishes to just about City's best opportunity of the afternoon, slicing wide with Tevez and Adebayor waiting in the middle, though it spoke volumes that the home side failed to create anything else.
Their only other two chances of note fell to Gareth Barry and Wayne Bridge, and again that tells its own story.
The first half was absorbing without being eventful, but after 45 minutes of the usual derby thud and blunder, two things were evident. One was that City, for all their possession, had not really worked out a way of breaking down United's defence. Neither Tevez nor Adebayor managed to get on the end of anything, despite Bellamy beating Gary Neville to roll inviting crosses across goal on a couple of occasions.
The other was that United had missed two great chances to take the lead in the closing minutes of the half. Though Wayne Rooney was generally subdued and fortunate to escape a booking for kicking out at Nigel de Jong, he managed to turn Kolo Toure on the edge of the area and shot wide from a position where you would normally have put money on him scoring.
Then when Antonio Valencia escaped down the right his cross found Ryan Giggs in front of goal, only for an attempted flick past Given to roll into the goalkeeper's arms instead.
If the crowd thought the second half could only get better they were mistaken. Barry and Bridge showed that their finishing skills leave something to be desired at one end while, rather more culpably, Nani and Berbatov did the same at the other.
Adam Johnson had been unable to find the final ball to match his dribbling skills in the first hour, yet even so it was a surprise when Mancini replaced him with Patrick Vieira. When United withdrew Rooney at the same time as City brought off Adebayor it appeared both sides had settled for a scoreless draw, though Ferguson astutely pushed Scholes forward for the last few minutes and the ploy brought its reward when City fatally left him unmarked by the penalty spot.
The goal prevented United from recording two consecutive scoreless draws for the first time in the Premier League. And it kept the pressure on Chelsea. A title challenge that looked dead has life again.