Ji-sung Park gamble backfires as Alex Ferguson's timid Manchester United surrender the initiative

City exploit United's packed midfield which leaves Rooney isolated and frustrated in attack

The Etihad Stadium

Sir Alex Ferguson had always said that this morning would be the worst if United lost – waking up, facing the music, the fans, the ice- cold reality that City share Manchester now. That his side lost a game they never tried to win will make the nausea that much worse.

They'd travelled a few miles across town, and yet it felt like one of those United sides built to survive in an inhospitable corner of Europe. This was not entirely unreasonable, considering that no team had left this place with all the points since a Christmas chill was in the air almost a year and a half ago. Yet it was not an entirely comfortable arrangement, either, for those who wanted to witness some lustre, a little champion class, a tide of red to stem the inexorable sense that a club able to tap into unlimited oil revenue can allow themselves some blue-sky thinking and to believe anything possible.

As the sun set on the stadium, the perimeter advertising promoted the exotic possibilities of Formula One at Abu Dhabi's shimmering Yas Marina racetrack this autumn but, as if in demonstration of the gulf between City and the club that owes £439m, Ferguson offered graft, resilience and other qualities taught on the Glaswegian shipyards. There was an appreciable sense of despair for who saw instead that Ferguson had indeed decided to Park something in a five-man midfield. All the talk of champion class – "We're United. We can only try to win," Ryan Giggs had said – and yet United stuck with functionality.

Giggs, Paul Scholes and Ji-sung Park had appeared in the same starting line-up only once in the past two years – this winter's FA Cup exit at Liverpool's hands. Scholes and Park's relatively rare combination had also included last year's 0-0 draw here and the FA Cup semi-final defeat. So this wasn't entirely new. United have long since known that they cannot come to bury Manchester City, nor to raze them.

It was workable for so long as the line held and in the display that Giggs put in, while City struggled to settle their nerves and lay a claim, there was something quite wondrous, even in its deadening impact on the game. The 38-year-old, built to create and to dictate, pressed City so punishingly that there was barely time to blink, let alone control the ball, look up and take a mental measure of the possibilities. Park, too, put his head down and grafted.

It was a treacherous gamble, though. The fault line had actually seemed to be Patrice Evra, a shadow of the former left-back, up against Samir Nasri, a Muslim whose prayers on the pitch before kick-off seemed to be answered. But it proved to be Chris Smalling, failing horribly to challenge Vincent Kompany's powering header on the brink of half-time. Disaster. United, set up only to resist City, had to redraw their plans entirely.

There is rarely more than one effect on Wayne Rooney when he is billeted as a loan striker – frustration – and the shake of the head, the mutterings, the arms thrown out in supplication for a pass which never came were all in evidence. One by one, United's defensive bricks were removed in favour of something more resembling what we have come to view as United, in their years of dominance.

Park couldn't race off fast enough. Scholes, unable to dictate this one as he did his hour of derby football he played on his first return from retirement, sprinted from the field, too. Yet United had nothing left within, no moment of class nor piece of brilliance. Rooney looked a hunched, lost soul; a player who seemed to know his side's number was up.

Ferguson offered as much as anyone when he leapt from his chair to jab at Roberto Mancini, over Nigel de Jong's challenge on Danny Welbeck. And when he took up his big blue seat again, he seemed lost in it, wondering what the answer might be, how he might repel the blue tide which this morning threatens to drown him.

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