City's statement of intent is lost in translation

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The Independent Football

The framed newspaper image which Manchester United's Rafael da Silva has hung on his living room wall reveals that his impressive display keeping Robinho quiet at Eastlands in November was important to him. The 18-year-old's own handwritten caption is scrawled underneath. "Rafael has Robinho in his pocket," it reads.

There was a brief period yesterday when that teenage optimism looked misplaced. Robinho's form has brightened with the climate and it was man against boy when he rolled a ball under his studs, leaving Rafael clutching at thin air and sending Elano, another of their compatriots, running into the left side of United's penalty area.

Elano's shot was badly miscued and the moment was no more than a tantalising hint of how life might be if and when City's Arabian wealth really does put them in the same realm as United. A City banner hung over one M56 motorway bridge yesterday proclaimed "This is our City" but, in terms of football ascendancy, that claim remains premature.

Robinho had more tricks in his red boots for Rafael, flicking a ball up under his toe and sending a pass inside the full-back to Nedum Onuoha in the same part of the move. Nemanja Vidic resolved the issue but it took Rafael a full period of football to learn the dangers of playing too tightly against the Premier League's most expensive acquisition.

But while Robinho had not undergone a confidence crisis before the match either – he claimed he had passed up the chance to watch United's Champions League semi-final in favour of football in the back garden with his 18-month-old son – it was as misplaced as his belief that he can overtake Ronaldo's goal tally this season.

Granted, there was a trace of misfortune in United's opener which took the pressure off the champions – Nigel de Jong's deflection on Cristiano Ronaldo's free-kick explains why Shay Given's centre of gravity shifted first right, then left – but there was no conviction, no presence and no means of retaining the ball for long periods as the game evolved.

City's counter-attacking has seen them score more goals this season than any club below the top five, but their tame drifts forward with possession regained told you they knew United could destroy them again at a stroke.

Where United had Carlos Tevez, buzzing around De Jong, crashing twice against a post and finding the net, City had Felipe Caicedo. For midfield dominance, Darren Fletcher against Steven Ireland was another meeting of unequals. City still lack muscle and it added up to one of the tamest derbies imaginable.

City manager Mark Hughes seemed mildly indignant when it was put to him that City's struggle for a Europa Cup place – a win at Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday now looks obligatory – might make the search for marquee buys this summer difficult. "No," was his monosyllabic response.

Unfounded doubts about Hughes' future are also affecting progress in the transfer market, though there was some hope on the horizon. Robinho linking with Carlos Tevez? Now there is a prospect to put the fear of God into a teenage right-back.