You could turn almost any Premiership game into some kind of morality tale, but rarely as easily as this one. Despite some hungry, deadly interventions by Wayne Rooney and the consistent relevance of Paul Scholes, Cristiano Ronaldo made a persuasive case to be man of the match. He did not dive, something he had been doing with a regularity and a shamelessness which even Sir Alex Ferguson might have recognised in more detached circumstances, and in place of such grubby artifice there was a wonderful investment in all of his gifts.
Result: City, despite a brief upsurge of optimism and skill in the second half, were always doomed. On this occasion, Ronaldo was unsullied and, as direct consequence, just about unplayable.
However, the morality issue ran far deeper, even though it is true that the image of a player of Ronaldo's natural quality concentrating entirely on producing the best of himself was something to be beamed profitably to every corner of the game. Even so, it was the defeated manager, Stuart Pearce, who delivered the most impressive message of all after seeing his Italian striker Bernardo Corradi dismissed by the referee, Graham Poll, for collecting two yellow cards, the second for a dive outrageous even by the standards that are mostly accepted with shrugs of resignation.
Pearce immediately backed Poll's decision. Then later, he made a declaration of managerial honesty that in all the recent circumstances sparkled like a jewel.
He said: "I was asked a question and I gave an honest answer. Did he go down cheaply? Yes he did. Will I talk to him during the week? Yes I will. I prefer him to stay on his feet. I won't fine him but I will educate him. Other managers can handle themselves as they wish. The players of Manchester City know I back them to the hilt but if I get a question about what I've seen with my own eyes, there is no point in buttering it up.
"The referee got it right. We need to make sure we don't put referees under pressure next week - or put ourselves under pressure by having our players sent off. I went to a supporters' club meeting the other day and they said: 'Do you think you're being too honest? We are not getting the rub of the green with referees because you're being too honest.' I said that I didn't know, but that the other way forward was lying through your teeth and criticising referees. That's not the way for me. Had I been awarded a penalty for a dive I would have said exactly the same thing. I would say that having seen it again it was not a penalty and I would be having a word with the player to tell him to stay on his feet.
"General honesty is not a bad thing. If I stand in front of you and say he was scythed down, they are only going to think I'm an idiot when they see it on television with their own eyes. The beauty of it is that when Corradi plays next he will ride the tackle, put the ball in the net and I'll say, 'well done son, you have got us a goal with your honesty.'"
Pearce's yearning for such a perfect case scenario may not be rewarded... nor his other hope: "This time can it not just be me coming out with an honest assessment of what I've seen, even if it means being critical of my team?Any chance of some of the other managers coming out and doing the same?"
A remote one at best, you have to think, but at least Pearce provides an option, one that week by week seems to be buried ever deeper somewhere in a mountain range of self-interest.
For the present, the City manager's best consolation is that when United's concentration did waver in the second half, his team showed enough life - and ability on the ball - to explain the recent upturn in their form. The young substitute Steve Ireland played with splendid conviction before turning back the ball for the Tunisian playmaker Hatem Trabelsi to shoot home with quite dazzling conviction.
United, though, swiftly recovered their composure and Ronaldo crowned his afternoon with a predatory touch that justified Ferguson's ever-gathering belief that this could indeed be the year that Chelsea's hold on the domestic game is truly challenged... and also his transparent impatience with the late confession of alarm by the chief executive, David Gill, about the course of the game when, with the United manager and his friend Marcello Lippi, he announced a celebratory match between the club and a Europe Select XI next March to mark the club's 50 years of participation in European football - and half a century of the Treaty of Rome.
Lippi confirmed that the gate-swelling potential of David Beckham would be reflected in his line-up, Ferguson having earlier frowned deeply when asked in whose shirt the former celebrity hero would be appearing. "Marcello's," he said emphatically. Where, indeed, would Beckham play in a United formation which is currently conjuring some of the best of the Ferguson tradition? With the notable exception of Ryan Giggs, who on this unsatisfactory form will be pushed to complete the 75 more first-team appearances he needs to match the record of Sir Bobby Charlton, United confirmed that with Rooney and Louis Saha operating closely at the front of attack, and with Ronaldo reaching out for new levels of competitive maturity, the recent pratfall in Glasgow could be swept into the margins of hardening ambitions at both home and in Europe.
Gill, having recovered from his second-half collywobbles, was certainly sanguine as he deflected questions about the claims of his predecessor, Peter Kenyon, overChelsea's unfolding world conquest in the marketing arena.
Said Gill: "He [Kenyon] is entitled to his view. It is going very well for us. We're nine points clear and we've got through to the next stage of Europe. We've got some good players and they've got better. The manager is motivated and I think we're playing well. We've got a fantastic stadium, we're selling out every week, 75,000-plus, which is brilliant, and we'll let action speak louder than words."
United's most recent action inevitably engulfed City. Both Ronaldo and Rooney made and scored goals, and there were times when Saha, who had to leave early, formed an attacking triumvirate of superb touch and rhythm. Early on, before a bookable bout of temper and some profligacy, Rooney threatened to beat City on his own; there was a sharpness and a hunger to his play that mocked those of us who not so long ago were fretting over both his form and his motivation. But then maybe we should not have been too hard on ourselves for this was a Rooney who was worth all of the concern, not the one who had gone missing so profoundly.
Ferguson's vision may have been flawed in his denial that Ronaldo ever dived, but in his belief that the virtuoso winger and Rooney had the potential to devastate any opposition it was surely 20-20. After they had done their work, Pearce did indeed take over the moral high ground. But it was, in truth, all he had been left.
Goals: Rooney (6) 1-0; Saha (45) 2-0; Trabelsi (72) 2-1; Ronaldo (84) 3-1.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Heinze; Ronaldo, Carrick, Scholes, Giggs; Rooney, Saha (O'Shea, 66). Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Solskjaer, Fletcher, Silvestre.
Manchester City (4-4-2) : Weaver (Isaksson, 46); Richards (Beasley, 76), Dunne, Distin, Thatcher; Trabelsi, Reyna (Ireland, 46), Barton, Vassell; Samaras, Corradi. Substitutes not used: Dickov, Onuoha.
Referee: G Poll (Hertfordshire)
Booked: Manchester United: Rooney. Manchester City: Thatcher, Reyna, Corradi. Sent off: Corradi.
Man of the match: Ronaldo.
Attendance: 75,858.Reuse content