Manchester United's transition towards ordinary is gathering pace. Out of Europe before Christmas and the title race by New Year, their reverse accelerated on Saturday when their most temperamental lights resorted to diversionary tactics a mere 45 minutes into an undisputed derby defeat.
The Football Association can expect a match report laden with expletives when it arrives from Steve Bennett, the Orpington referee who was allegedly labelled a "fucking cheating bastard" by Sir Alex Ferguson and a "fucking disgrace" by Wayne Rooney during a half-time rant that ended with an imprint of the striker's boot on a door outside the away dressing-room at the City of Manchester Stadium. Ferguson and Rooney can expect a swift response from the FA's disciplinary committee.
Rooney's shin had been raked by the City full-back Stephen Jordan before a booking for dissent that was inevitable for the England international once the challenge went unpunished, but otherwise the vitriol directed at Bennett was completely unjustified.
Unfortunately for Stuart Pearce the diversion worked, taking the Sunday headlines from his victorious team and overshadowing Ferguson's significant contribution towards a defeat that placed United's Premiership credentials into perspective; second best in their own city and second favourites to claim the final automatic Champions' League place from Liverpool, who they meet at Old Trafford on Sunday.
"I must have played United 15 times in the Nineties and can't remember being able to get a draw, never mind a win," said Trevor Sinclair, scorer of the first City goal and the cause of a dreadful debut for United's new £4.5m left-back, Patrice Evra."Recently, though, my record against them has been much better."
Having faced the wrath of a swearing Scot and Scouser, Bennett may dispute that assessment, but he was unperturbed in his duties and dismissed Cristiano Ronaldo for malicious intent in the 66th minute when a dangerous lunge on Andrew Cole encapsulated the indiscipline and petulance of United's display. "You have to play with controlled aggression, it's the only way," said Pearce. "I was sent off five times in 1,000 games, that is controlled aggression. I deserved those red cards, and if I didn't I wouldn't moan about it." The City manager was describing the mental fortitude of his own players, but he could easily have been delivering a lecture to Old Trafford.
Pearce's team, with two wins from 10 league games before Saturday, were two goals ahead after 39 minutes without performing well. Both sides were wasteful in possession and lacked threat, but only one turned up without a defence and they were dutifully punished as Cole and Darius Vassell increased United's discomfort through their respective intelligence and pace.
Ferguson admitted that it was a gamble to play Evra but of greater concern was his considered choice of Mikaël Silvestre at centre-half, on the basis that his French tongue would help the former Monaco player on his debut. "Tu as disparè ou exactement pendant les premières 45 minutes?" was presumably all Silvestre could say as his compatriot disappeared, failed to win an aerial challenge and was put out of his misery at half-time. Silvestre, however, was even worse, while Rio Ferdinand had one of those afternoons when he lacked presence or command.
All three United defenders were culpable for Vassell's goal, City's second, which he nonchalantly rolled beyond Edwin van der Sar in the 39th minute. Alone in the centre-circle stood Rooney, shaking his head in despair at the realisation that carrying the team would bring no reward this day. Seven minutes earlier Sinclair, who had described scoring in a derby as "better than sex", was afforded a yard of space inside the area to sweep the impressive Stephen Ireland's touch into the corner. Vassell was offside when the move began, a decision missed by Bennett's assistant, but once Gary Neville's headed clearance fell to Ireland his team-mates were again found pondering.
Ruud van Nistelrooy gave the visitors hope of an undeserved point during their most productive spell but in the search for an equaliser they were caught on the break in injury-time and Robbie Fowler applied a stylish final blow. The former Liverpool striker gave the United fans a five-fingered salute, one finger for every European Cup at Anfield, while Pearce leapt like a maniac into the embrace of a City supporter. "I was looking for a big woman but I got a fella instead," he cursed. Ferguson headed straight for a chauffer-driven car to take him to Manchester Airport, his excuses delivered long before.
Goals: Sinclair (32) 1-0; Vassell (39) 2-0; Van Nistelrooy (76) 2-1, Fowler (90) 3-1.
Manchester City (4-4-2): James; Sun, Dunne (Onuoha, 68), Distin, Jordan; Sinclair, Ireland, Barton, Riera (Musampa, 77); Cole (Fowler, 77), Vassell. Substitutes not used: Sibierski, Croft.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Silvestre, Evra (Smith, 45); Ronaldo, Fletcher (Saha, 71), O'Shea (Richardson, 85), Giggs; Rooney, Van Nistelrooy. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Brown.
Referee: Steve Bennett (Orpington).
Booked: Manchester City James, Fowler. Manchester United Rooney.
Sent off: Ronaldo.
Man of the match: Trevor Sinclair.
Attendance: 44,192.Reuse content