Far from a grand showdown, Manchester City merely showed their nerve. They held that and held onto the initiative in the title race.
They know that if they win their remaining three games they will also win the league, after this ultimately facile 2-0 derby victory over Manchester United.
The manner of it will make it all the more satisfying for Pep Guardiola’s side and the City supporters who were so goading the home crowd by the end, but nobody needed this game to know the vastly different states of the club.
While City have their third consecutive win at Old Trafford and their 11th in the Premier League in this current run, United are now on their worst spell of form since 1962, with seven defeats in nine games. The bad state of the team really goes beyond such stats.
The worst that could be said for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s hapless side was that this felt like one of those run-in matches against a mere mid-table side, capable of putting it up to you for a bit, but ultimately prone to collapse when the pressure gets real. That’s how bad it was.
That’s why it feels that City may even face greater challenges in this run-in from Burnley and Leicester City. Liverpool didn’t get their favour from their greatest rivals, but that wasn’t for want of trying. United were toiling, but just backed too far off.
That was how Bernardo Silva was able to score the easiest of opening goals, and substitute Leroy Sany added the most elementary of clinchers.
Both goals were just so avoidable, and it means criticising the United players is not. David De Gea was again at fault, but that was again part of a larger pattern of so much poor quality.
City didn’t even need to show that much quality. They just needed to show the kind of get-the-job-dine mettle so many Sir Alex Ferguson teams used to show in such situations, which should make it all the worse.
Old Trafford was almost empty of home fans by the end, much like their team’s challenge.
The early start by that point just seemed one of those unsustainable bursts of commitment you see from ailing sides, that can barely last 20 minutes.
And, even there, there was a contradiction. While Solskjaer’s side were pressing City so high up the pitch, to some success, they were disengaging and standing off at the back.
It was part of the reason that the champions finally put a flowing move together at the end of the first half, as the two Silvas, Aguero and Sterling intricately combined for their first real chance of the game. That wasn’t the goal, but it was the sign. It was also – more tellingly – the source of the eventual opening.
City had admittedly started to seize control of the game by that stage, but the way that United just backed off was lamentable.
So it was that Bernardo Silva was able to almost incrementally work his way towards goal and gradually realise that, hey, there was a shot on here. He took it and it so easily flew past De Gea, who seemed to leave so much of his near post open.
That United’s defenders had left so much space for Silva somewhat undercut any arguments the goalkeeper might have had that the shot was taken early. De Gea had a full view of everything else so early, with that only emphasising how no one in this home side could escape blame.
There was a short-lived response from United, that somehow saw Lingard fail to make contact with the ball from the shortest of distances from goal, but that was really the only the set-up for another City surge.
You could say the same about Fred’s attempts to play the ball forward. Right through the first hour, he had seemed to be giving passes to blue shirts every time, and it finally cost him and his team.
One of his passes was eventually worked on to Sterling, and he weaved through the United half. The ball was pushed on to substitute Sane, who just forced it through De Gea and in.
It was another display of weakness from the goalkeeper in recent months, another display of lax play from United.
Much like their entire notion of defending, the early tension of the match now seemed a mirage. How couldn’t it be? City were just too sharp, too focused.
Where they killed with one touch, players like Paul Pogba were killing their own team with several.
An indicative moment actually came just before the Silva goal, when Pogba had looked like he might force his way through on the edge of the box, but it was all just so ponderous. He dawdled, and Fernandinho just came straight in to block any attempt. It might yet prove a key moment in this run-in in another sense, as it did force the Brazilian off.
City will sweat on that over the next 24 hours. It may well prove a lot more tense than this game. That’s for another moment, though.
In this moment, City are still on top, and still with their destiny in their own hands. They look certain. United’s future is anything but certain. “The wheels are falling off,” the away fans sang. City are still en route, still only going one way.
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