Once in a blue moon, Manchester City put one over their despised rivals, and how they enjoyed doing so at the national stadium yesterday. Red were the opposition faces and blue was the colour as 32,000 of their followers became the noisiest of neighbours in celebrating not only reaching the FA Cup final but ending Manchester United's prospects of partying like it was 1999 by repeating their fabled Treble.
Although United will still hope to be back for the Champions' League final on 28 May, having regained their Premier League title in the meantime, City will return a fortnight earlier, hoping to win a first trophy since the 1976 Football League Cup.
Forced back into their Italianate defensive shell for the first half an hour, Roberto Mancini's team suddenly emerged from it, taking the lead through Yaya Touré early in the second half, after which Paul Scholes was sent off for one of his more ridiculous tackles. After that first third of the game, a United midfield without Ryan Giggs was eclipsed, with Touré and David Silva taking control from Scholes and Michael Carrick, while the ever excellent Vincent Kompany stemmed the flow of attacks.
Gambling on the talent and temperament of his volatile striker Mario Balotelli, Mancini was just about rewarded, although there was almost inevitable controversy when the striker sparked undignified scenes at the final whistle by waving his blue shirt at United fans; Anderson, on as a late substitute, appeared to push him and Rio Ferdinand, who should have been enjoying a memorable day after his wife gave birth to a daughter, also took exception to the Italian's behaviour. Balotelli had earlier collected one of City's four yellow cards in the final 25 minutes as they sat back and played on the counterattack, threatening a second goal and only coming close to conceding when Nani's free-kick was pushed on to the bar by Joe Hart, another outstanding performer.
So City have at last won a game away from the home comforts of Eastlands – their first such success since Boxing Day – and the hope must be that it will inspire sufficient confidence for them to repeat the more aggressive approach that has too rarely brought performances like the 5-0 demolition of Sunderland a fortnight ago. For half an hour, their followers must have felt they were watching a re-run of the depressing 3-0 defeat at Liverpool last Monday. For that game Mancini had rested two highly influential players in the combative Nigel de Jong and the more creative Silva, and each illustrated yesterday how badly the team needs them.
Here, it was Sir Alex Ferguson who seemed disinclined to select his strongest side. Mindful of battles to come he kept Javier Hernandez in reserve for more than an hour, and left Giggs out altogether. So with Antonio Valencia and Nani on the flanks, Park Ji-Sung was moved inside, where he proved ineffectual, filling the role behind Dimitar Berbatov.
Berbatov it was who unwittingly brought the game to life by passing up two acceptable chances in the space of a minute. Carrick and Scholes, the nominally defensive midfielders, were both involved in creating the first opportunity in a glorious first-time passing move, Park's final prompt putting Berbatov in, only to be foiled as Hart spread himself Schmeichel-like to block. Then, as Nani crossed low from the left, the Bulgarian striker slid in and from barely a couple of yards contrived to knock the ball over the crossbar.
Only after that did the tide begin to turn and in the quarter of an hour before half-time, Mancini's team had four chances of their own as Silva began to drift away from the left flank, providing better support for the hitherto anonymous Balotelli. If the zonal marking system left them vulnerable to United's corners, City's own set-pieces had clearly been practised hard. In the 31st minute Silva put over a dangerous cross from the right that Gareth Barry latched on to, swivelling to shoot on the turn into the side-netting. Four minutes later Balotelli, suddenly invigorated, ran and shot from fully 35 yards, forcing Edwin van der Sar to save at the expense of City's first corner. It led to a volley over the bar from Joleon Lescott and from the next one a 25-yard shot by Kompany just past a post.
Not only was the momentum maintained at the start of the second half, but a goal resulted within seven minutes. As Van der Sar kicked clear United lost possession, Carrick being the offender who set Touré on his way. He forged into the penalty area, evading Nemanja Vidic and shooting through the goalkeeper's legs. From a well-worked corner, Adam Johnson wriggled past Patrice Evra and Van der Sar almost deflected the cross-shot into his net. The next corner, taken short, offered Lescott a header from Silva's cross that he put wide.
Scholes rightly received the 10th red card of his career for a typically wild challenge that caught Pablo Zabaleta high on the thigh and although City were dismayed to see five minutes of added time signalled, they survived them in comfort. Now we will see whether they can use this triumph as the springboard Mancinihas promised or whether it will all end in a characteristic belly-flop.
Referee: Mike Dean
Man of the match: Touré
Match rating: 7/10