Ian Herbert: De Jong bares teeth to win his battle with Scholes

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The Independent Football

One of the most absorbing scenes in the wonderful Blue Moon Rising film which chronicles Manchester City's journey to the brink of last season's top four captures the dressing room scenes seconds before the players ran out for that vital and decisive spring encounter with Tottenham. "This is the only game they'll remember," Craig Bellamy bellows at the players. "No one cares about the rest. It's all for nothing if we lose this."

Bellamy, whose enforced departure from City remains a mystery to many, would have been mighty valuable on a night like this and that scene made you wonder who the new screamers have turned out to be. Not captain Carlos, for sure. He's not one to do much talking. That film scene and Joe Hart's interview earlier this week, told us that much.

The answer is Nigel de Jong, a player whose season and game was plunged into torment and turmoil two months ago with the tackle which broke Hatem Ben Arfa's leg here against Newcastle and saw him removed from the Dutch national side. You wondered whether the whole imbroglio would emasculate those aspects of his game which are quality, especially when Charlie Adam of Blackpool waltzed past him at Bloomfield Road a week later you and De Jong hardly seemed to blink.

Manchester has actually been deeply divided on the De Jong issue and some of the most ardent supporters of his game have been from the Old Trafford camp. Lou Macari was infuriated by Bert van Marwijk's axing of de Jong, remembering just the same kind of challenges coming in from Jimmy Case and Arthur Albiston in the days when men were men. The most absorbing battle of last night pitched De Jong against Paul Scholes, another with a habit of placing tackles where more angelic midfielders fear to tread. De Jong won that battle. He was one of the few players to have walked away off a derby pitch last night and claimed that he had had the better of one of this fixture's greatest campaigners.

Only three United players have scored more goals against City than the seven Scholes has managed in 21 derbies but this was an occasion when he was needed to command the central territory. It took Scholes precisely one minute and 50 seconds to signal his presence there. Bang: James Milner was upended and Scholes was walking away; the first of three such challenges which saw him booked.

But the 35-year-old's chances even to venture out of his own half and exploit space which can make him United's most wonderfully creative player, were deprived him by the advancing presence of De Jong. The sight of De Jong easing the ball away from Nani and skipping down the right touchline before he was felled by Berbatov in that period, provided some of the sense of perspective which is badly needed about the 25-year-old's qualities.

The margins for error were desperately narrow at times as the game wore on. De Jong allowed Nani about one yard of turf in front of the City box early in the second half, as City briefly seemed to tire. In the blink of an eye he had spotted Wes Brown, whose cross was met by Berbatov's scissor kick.

For an equally fleeting moment, it seemed that De Jong had returned the trouble with interest, when he dispossessed Nani with masterful timing and spotted Adam Johnson lurking down the left. But this, too, came to nothing. In the end this match mattered too much for either side to take hold of it and win. But De Jong made the right noises.