James Lawton: Reality bites hard as limitations of upstarts and old guard exposed

Roberto Mancini hauled off Carlos Tevez with just a minute of added time remaining. It was the late, late concession of the Manchester City manager that not even the passionately committed Argentine could mount a blow against the team who were supposed to be stripped of their aura – and also invaded by one virus or another.

The reality was that the great battle of Manchester was simply nothing of the sort.

It was a story of the rich and the lame, of what can happen when the hype is about the vast of amounts of money that has been spent – and the reputation of a Manchester United that may, on this evidence, indeed be running on borrowed time.

The great battle was, in truth, the big exposé of limitations in both prospects and residual strength. It was a time when the reality was colder than the night. Neither City nor United deserved even a murmuring of bragging rights.

The City fans here to see the changing of the guard were very quickly prepared for something much less profound in the history of the city's football. A mere changing of gear, from a grinding first, was thus almost rapturously received after more than half an hour of dead-end speculation.

Tevez, who had spent most of his time foraging without much hope among a forest of red shirts – how can you spend £350m on the first phase of team building and still just about afford to play one man up front? – cleverly bent a free kick around the wall and required Edwin van der Sar to push it for a corner. Yaya Touré, presumably encouraged by this rare show of aggressive intent, almost immediately launched himself on a one-man charge at the United defence. This excited the crowd but left Nemanja Vidic quite literally unmoved. So the big man from the Ivory Coast bounced off the United captain.

This was not quite what anyone had been led to expect, and especially not those who had run their eye over the valuation of one team and the tradition of the other.

The brutal truth was that neither team were able to begin to justify their rewards or their ambitions in a first half that was drained of both quality and even much hint of competitive character.

The resulting stalemate was not much less than astonishing given the expectations placed on the teams – and the level of propaganda both had applied to the build-up.

United said they were going to simply swat the upstarts. City, after six defeats in the seven derby games since Sheikh Mansour converted them into the richest club in the world, talked about the night when United would get their first harsh look at the rest of their football lives. It was a bold declaration, particularly in view of recent convulsions in places like Wolverhampton and Poznan, but then nor had it been exactly discouraged by some of United's own recent form.

For City the imperative was clear enough. The statement on a new balance of football power in Manchester depended on the kind of effort that inflicted the first setback on Chelsea back in September – and also seriously challenged an Arsenal who enjoyed a one-man advantage for much of the game. Seen on those occasions was a team who appeared to believe in their right to an early place among the elite of English and European football. Last night they took an eternity to do much more than change their stride.

Inevitably, perhaps, it was Tevez who worked hardest to break the impasse. He doesn't merely fight hard against his old club. He re-initiates a crusade. Despite all that early discouragement at the hands of Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, he waged this one deep into the second half despite the soul-destroying nature of so much of the work. He ran feverishly and with not much more support than the odd waspish foray by David Silva.

It was hardly surprising Mancini spent so much of the game scampering between his seat and the technical area. There were times when his team seemed less a work in progress than accelerating regression.

United? Most of the time they were no better than this City whom they were supposed to put so firmly in their place, but as the clock wound down there was a terrible gnawing fear in the stadium. It was that maybe Scholes, who had rarely been less influential, or perhaps Nani would shake themselves into some meaningful action. There was, too, the threat of the "Little Pea". Javier Hernandez made one late run into the box and suddenly there was a sense of impending paralysis. It passed quickly enough, however, with the growing conviction that this was a match that thoroughly deserved the fate of oblivion.

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