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Monday, April 30, 2012
City thrives in tense battle

By Michael Cox
Special to ESPN.com

Manchester City had beaten Manchester United in a good game, and now City has beaten United in a poor game. The two Manchester derbies this season have been completely opposing in style. The first was an open, attractive game of football that saw City recording a historic 6-1 win with some fabulous goals; the second was low in quality with the only strike coming from a set piece.

It is obvious which game will be remembered more in a year: the win at Old Trafford that featured, among other things, Mario Balotelli's T-shirt celebration and David Silva playing the pass of the season -- a volleyed, sliced-forward ball to Edin Dzeko in the buildup to a late goal. Everything about that game was exciting. Even Manchester United's only goal, scored by the much-missed Darren Fletcher, was a brilliantly curled effort from outside the box.

On Monday night, even an hour after full time, key moments are difficult to recall. There was Vincent Kompany's goal, a late, nervous moment when Joe Hart was fouled while jumping for a high ball, and ... precious little else. Manchester United failed to record a single shot on target -- the first time that's happened in almost three years, when it drew 0-0 at home to Arsenal. Even in that game, the failure was something of an anomaly, as United needed only a draw to clinch the title and spent the second half barely trying to score.

In Monday's game, a 0-0 would again have suited United, but it had an hour to test Hart after Kompany's header. "We're disappointed we never tested the goalkeeper," United manager Alex Ferguson said. "Our crossing was poor, they were more of a threat simply because they had more action around the edge of the box."

In a way, that defensive performance makes the 1-0 score as impressive as the 6-1. City was resilient and determined; these are qualities generally associated with its opponent, which is the master at grinding out important results in key fixtures. But United can have no complaints. "We deserved to win this game," City manager Roberto Mancini said. "I don't think they had a chance to score -- we gave a good performance."

City has been the better side in both games, and there was a sense of calmness and intelligence in how it attacks. At Old Trafford, the wide players took it in turns to move across the pitch and combine, causing situations of numerical superiority in United's fullback zones. Silva and James Milner were the main architects, swapping passes before playing low cutbacks into the box.

Neither Silva nor Milner was key Monday night -- the former was quiet, the latter on the bench with Samir Nasri the preferred option. This time, City's tactical strength was not in how it scored goals but in how it dominated the game. Ferguson used Ryan Giggs in a very narrow position, attempting to compete in the center of the pitch. But that allowed right back Pablo Zabaleta to get forward unchallenged, and again City had overloads in the wide positions, with Nasri and Zabaleta up against Patrice Evra. City couldn't quite find the final pass from this position, but continual pressure down that side forced the two corners that resulted in Kompany's goal.

Besides, this situation was one of the key reasons City had control of the match -- and as Ferguson mentioned, in a scrappy match, City had more scoring opportunities because it was getting the ball into dangerous positions more frequently, even if none of the creative players shone.

Kompany and Toure were powerful in the center of the pitch, but Zabaleta was superb; the Argentine's role at right back was tremendous. In addition to being a key attacking threat, he dealt well with three United left wingers: Giggs, then Nani, then Ashley Young. Earlier in the season he was highlighted as the type of player who wins his team titles -- that was proved true with this victory.

But the game came down to one set piece. Chris Smalling failed to track Kompany, and City went ahead. "If you lose a goal from a set piece at this level of football, then you've only yourselves to blame for that," Ferguson said. In truth, both sides defended corners poorly throughout the game, with City switching off twice early on, letting United play short passes into the box.

Of course, this wasn't quite a title decider. The clubs are now level with 83 points, and both have two games to play. City has the superior goal difference, but its trip to Newcastle next weekend is unquestionably the toughest fixture either club has remaining. It is difficult to predict how motivated Newcastle will be -- it plays Chelsea on Wednesday, where a defeat would be a big blow to its chances of Champions League qualification (with Chelsea also capable of stealing the Magpies' place in next season's competition by winning this season's final against Bayern Munich). Manchester United wants Newcastle to be fired up for the game on Sunday, so it will hope that Alan Pardew's side can get a result at Stamford Bridge to keep it in the running.

But City will be favored to win its remaining games, just as the Red Devils will be favored for its own, and the Premier League could be decided by goal difference for the first time in its 20-year history. The margin is eight goals. City's win by five goals at Old Trafford in October, rather than just one goal, is keeping it at the top.

Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net.