There are not many nights in football when a raging Sir Alex Ferguson has to be dragged away from his opposing manager on the touchline by his kitman. But then there has never been a night when the Manchester United manager has watched what was once an eight-point lead in the title race reduced to dust by his local city rivals.
The games of games in the Premier League era, the title decider that did not actually decide the title – call it what you like. It was not the most extraordinary game of the last 20 years but it signified an extraordinary moment in English football, when City moved top of the Premier League on goal difference and are now within touching distance of their first league title in 44 years.
It will be remembered for a United performance so flat it was hard to recall a single good chance; that and Ferguson briefly going berserk on the touchline at Roberto Mancini to the extent that the stewards were between them by the time the 70-year-old backed off. It was the tug on his sleeve from the club’s veteran kitman Albert Morgan that seemed to snap Ferguson out of his rage.
A pity for him that nothing could snap United out of their mediocrity. There was a shot from Michael Carrick in the first minute that was blocked by Vincent Kompany and then nothing worthy of the mention for the following 89 minutes plus stoppage time. It was the City captain who headed in the winner in time added on at the end of the first half and it was City who were pushing the hardest for a second come the end of the game.
Mancini played down expectations afterwards, claiming that United were still the favourites because his club’s run-in - Newcastle United away on Sunday and Queens Park Rangers at home on the last day of the season – was the more difficult. If that was his view then it was not that of those home fans who went into a reverie at the final whistle.
At the end, City walked off to ‘Hey Jude’ with Liam Gallagher singing along from his executive suite and Diego Maradona hugged his daughter Gianinna, the wife of Sergio Aguero in the stand. The United fans were held back in their enclosure and forced to witness it all. For the followers of the Manchester’s less fortunate football team, it really does not get much better than this.
Later Gallagher appeared in the press conference room after Mancini had finished to accuse Ferguson of having been “on the whisky” and announce that the City manager “is almost as cool as me” – before leaving with his arm around Kompany’s shoulders. This was City’s night and they were not afraid to enjoy it. Surely they could not let the opportunity slip away now?
Mancini advanced the argument that United have the easier games in Swansea City and Sunderland and he may yet be proved right. Nevertheless, last night Ferguson’s team did not seem to know what to do for the best. They were instinctively defensive, but that only served to invite City onto them and when finally they switched to a more attacking formation the rhythm just would not come.
Ferguson picked Park Ji-Sung for his first game since mid-March in a five-man midfield and the Korean was way off the pace. Carrick was arguably United’s most able performer but that was not saying much. Wayne Rooney was isolated. The likes of Nani and Ryan Giggs struggled to make any impression at all on the game.
By contrast, City looked extremely solid in the midfield with Yaya Toure and Gareth Barry. Samir Nasri was superb attacking Patrice Evra down City’s right flank. When Mancini replaced Carlos Tevez with Nigel De Jong with 22 minutes left, a move that indicated a shift in emphasis towards defence, Ferguson did not respond. He had already replaced Park with Danny Welbeck by then, but Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young did not enter the fray until the last 12 minutes.
There was an early set-back for City when Kompany was given a soft booking by Andre Marriner for clipping Rooney’s knee as he tried to get his leg around the striker to pinch the ball. It set a very low benchmark for a yellow card offence, and made you wonder if the referee had got it right. He could have let it go.
In that instant, Rooney did not cover himself in glory, staying on the ground after the Kompany tackle until the ball was passed into touch. By then City were on top and Aguero was presented with half a chance on 25 minutes. Rooney miscued with a clearance, Pablo Zabaleta, preferred to Micah Richards at right-back, pushed the ball into the area and, via Joleon Lescott it reached Aguero. He missed with his volley.
There were two corners in succession in the build-up to the goal from Kompany. For the first one David De Gea came off his line but could not get through a crowd of players in front of him to reach the ball. The United defenders are not in the habit of waiting around for De Gea to deal with trouble but they lost their concentration from the second corner in the sequence.
This time, David Silva’s ball from the right was met firmly by Kompany at close range and De Gea had no chance. It looked like he was the responsibility of Chris Smalling but Rio Ferdinand will also not enjoy watching that goal again.
Perhaps United’s best spell was a flurry of pressure down City’s left side after the hour. Phil Jones’ first cross was cleared by Lescott, excellent again, and when the second was hit hopelessly long, Rooney threw his hands in the air in despair.
Ferguson finally brought on Valencia for Paul Scholes in the aftermath of his row with Mancini, an extraordinary face-off in which Ferguson went back again and again. It came after a foul by De Jong on Welbeck which clearly deserved the booking that Marriner dished out. It was not clear what sparked it but Ferguson made much of the gesture that indicated he thought Mancini had said too much
Afterwards Mancini replied to Ferguson’s allegation that the City manager spoke to the referee and fourth official too much with sarcasm. But soon after he was diffusing the situation and saying he could “understand” Ferguson’s emotions. The City manager is learning fast, but his team are learning faster.
Booked: Man City - Kompany, Y Touré, De Jong. Man United - Jones, Carrick
Attempts on target Man City 5 Man United 2
Possession Man City 52% Man United 48%
Man of the match Nasri
Referee A Marriner (West Midlands)