Paul Pogba cuts through the derby's white noise to project a vision of hope at Manchester United

The hairstyles, hashtags and even the clandestine manoeuvrings of Mino Raiola mean little when a player of Pogba's talent turns in a pivotal, game-changing performance like this

Mark Critchley
Etihad Stadium
Saturday 07 April 2018 19:18
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Paul Pogba celebrates clinching United's second of the evening
Paul Pogba celebrates clinching United's second of the evening

And after that, he can dye his hair any colour he likes.

It was hard not to feel at least a little sympathy for Paul Pogba before this 176th and most eventful of Manchester derbies, whatever the truth behind Pep Guardiola’s claim that the midfielder was offered to Manchester City just a few months ago.

It was assumed by many that, if Mino Raiola felt so assured to offer his client’s services around, Pogba must have sanctioned such offers himself. The recent weeks and months have certainly not been easy for him. His relationship with Jose Mourinho has been strained.

And then, in light of Friday’s revelation, some even treated the blue-and-white streak he has sported in his hair since the most recent international break as a smoking gun.

Yet the hairstyles, hashtags and even the clandestine manoeuvrings of Mr. 10 per cents mean little when a player of Pogba’s talent turns in a pivotal, game-changing performance like this.

At half time, this looked certain to be City’s dream coronation and their supporters knew it.

It was after their second, Ilkay Gundogan’s sublime turn and finish, that almost every one of Pep Guardiola’s players ran over to Etihad’s South Stand in celebration. Their fans there, however, were mostly facing away from them and instead mocking a sullen Manchester United away end.

There, kettled by their braying blue cousins, one of English football’s most reliably boisterous travelling sections looked strangely vulnerable, as if conscious that all those great nights of yore – Wembley ‘68, Barcelona ‘99, Moscow ‘08 – suddenly counted for nothing in the present moment.

It was a picture of total superiority, one not in favour of the continent conquerors, but of their historically parochial, tragicomic neighbours, the one that those in other parts of the world are not referring to when they speak of a team called ‘Manchester’.

City, in that opening 45 minutes, had been able to so easily cut through a team supposed to be their nearest challengers that it brought the Premier League‘s reputation for competitiveness into question. Never mind this year’s title race, next year’s looked just as much of a foregone conclusion.

Yet while City are clearly a superb team, a unit of highly-talented individuals that sweeps all before them nine times out of ten, every so often the collective is undone by individual excellence.

Here was one such occasion, as Pogba’s driving, forceful second-half performance showed – one of a player perhaps letting recent frustrations bleed out of him, and it proved enough to drag his team back from the brink.

The midfielder attempts to get away from Bernardo Silva

His first was opportunistic, but the 25-year-old has rarely looked like a player willing to take such gambles of late. Ander Herrera’s chested assist was difficult to read, but Pogba was quicker to it than City’s static defence.

His second, meanwhile, was sublime – a header into the ground past Ederson from Alexis Sanchez’s cross, different to Roy Keane’s in Turin all those years ago, but just as emphatic and resounding.

With United on the cusp of one of their greatest humiliations, Pogba did what his most persistent critics have always asked of him. This was the scruff of the game’s neck, held tightly in a clenched fist, and with it came hope that this time next year, Manchester’s ongoing power struggle will not be so much of a procession.

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