On the eve of the Manchester City-Manchester United derby, a third-round encounter in the FA Cup, the pundits had their pens sharpened. They weren't merely criticizing the Red Devils but were talking up doom and gloom of epic proportions. The decline of the empire, in a nutshell -- a financially strapped club that in the past three years has a net spend lower than those of Hull City, Blackpool and Burnley. While City pumps millions into its squad, Alex Ferguson has had to paper over cracks the size of the San Andreas Fault to the point that Paul Scholes was called out of retirement and placed on the bench ahead of Sunday's clash at Etihad Stadium. Even worse, the manager and the team's star player, the ever-moody and up-and-down Wayne Rooney, were supposed to be on the outs, prompting the club to issue a statement rubbishing the suggestion while Rooney took to Twitter.
Not exactly the collective state of mind you want to be in ahead of a big match. And although Manchester United was able to defeat its "noisy neighbors" 3-2, the victory will do little to ease the concerns at Old Trafford, as Ferguson's men were quite fortunate to hold on to a 3-0 lead against a 10-man City.
Andrew Yates/AFP/Getty ImagesVincent Kompany was sent off after this controversial tackle on Nani in the 12th minute.
The Sky Blues came out bossing the game, pressing high up the pitch and looking primed to repeat the 6-1 beatdown they gave United in the league in October. But, incredibly, on United's first foray into City's final third, which didn't come until the 10th minute, Ryan Giggs found Rooney in space about 30 yards from goal. He dished to Antonio Valencia on the right. The Ecuadorian raced down the touchline while Rooney dashed into the box. Valencia flung in the cross, and Rooney powered an unstoppable header into the top-left corner. City keeper Costel Pantilimon, who got the start ahead of regular Joe Hart (who was presumably resting for the midweek Carling Cup semifinal against Liverpool), had no chance.
Just two minutes later came the game's biggest talking point. Vincent Kompany lunged in with two feet, studs up, to tackle Nani. Referee Chris Foy didn't hesitate and showed Kompany a straight red -- and again, a Premier League referee made a call that would influence the course of a match (something former referee Graham Poll chatted to us about recently, making the point that common sense must prevail when officiating matches, and he, too, thought the red was harsh on this call). Yes, Kompany's studs were showing, and by the letter of the law, that can be construed as a red. But even United fans must admit that Foy should have used common sense. This was a derby, after all, and he could have given a yellow and gotten on with the play. It was telling that Nani, who typically goes down in the mildest of breezes, didn't even hit the ground; instead, he jumped over the tackle and immediately tried to win the ball back.
You would have presumed that Foy ruined the game right then and there (and to City fans, he did). United certainly took full advantage after Danny Welbeck scored an absolute peach of a goal in the 30th minute. Nani found Patrice Evra on an overlapping on the left. The Frenchman fired a low cross into the area. The ball seemed to take a deflection off Welbeck and then Samir Nasri. But Welbeck remained alert, and moving away from goal he hit a swerving roundhouse volley into the far post.
And Foy did get a call correct when he awarded the penalty after Aleksandar Kolarov took out Welbeck in the box. Pantilimon blocked Rooney's poorly taken penalty kick, but with no City players charging the box, Rooney was able to give his hair plugs another workout.
Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesDanny Welbeck's exceptional goal in the 30th minute put United in control of the match, but City would fight back in the second half.
City had shown spirit after going down to 10 men, but the second and third goals appeared to sink them. But instead of United pouring salt in the wounds for some retribution (and Welbeck missed a poacher's goal right at the end of the first half, the kind that Chicharito thrives on), City regrouped. Stefan Savic came in for David Silva, Pablo Zabaleta for Adam Johnson. In the 48th minute, Micah Richards made a surging run, and while he grabbed Evra first, Foy chose to award a free kick to City for Evra taking hold of Richards in retaliation. Evra's protest suggested he knew the danger to come: Kolarov curled the ball over the wall into the lower-right corner, with Anders Lindegaard slow to react.
Things took a turn for the surreal in the 59th minute when Scholes came on for Nani. The substitution seemed a bit premature, especially for someone who hasn't played a real match since last season. What must have been going through the minds of former United legends David Beckham and Roy Keane, both in attendance, as Ferguson was forced to rely on a 37-year-old midfielder coming out of retirement? Beckham probably wants in on a game, while Keane must have had conflicting emotions -- a true supporter of United but someone who has no love lost for Ferguson.
Almost immediately, Scholes mistimed a tackle on Sergio Aguero, and it was Scholes who cheaply gave the ball away in his own final third that led to the second goal. On the throw in, Scholes underhit the ball, and James Milner stole it, ran toward the byline and crossed the ball into the box where Aguero was unmarked. In what was a poor game on defense for United, only Chris Smalling was there to try to defend, but Aguero would not be denied.
Valencia may have had a shout at a penalty when, in the 62nd minute, the man he was terrorizing all match, Kolarov, brought him down either on the line or inside the box, but Foy signalled to play on. Was this because Foy knew he might have been too harsh in his calls already? The commentators intimated that, which only added to the sense of injustice.
From then on, you could have been forgiven for thinking United was the team down to 10 men, as City tried to score the equalizer. In the 82nd minute, the Red Devils escaped more trouble as Milner's back heel found Kolarov, who hit the ball into the box. Appeals for handball were waved away by Foy after the ball hit the sliding leg of Jones, and then his outstretched hand, as he fell down. A corner was awarded instead. In the 86th minute, a chaotic goal-mouth scramble ended with Richards doing an overhead kick, but United saw the danger away.
Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesSergio Aguero puts the ball past United's Anders Lindegaard, who had a poor game.
In the end, Ferguson will no doubt be fuming that his side, up 3-0 against 10 men, barely hung on for victory. City showed a defiant spirit, while United again demonstrated that it is brittle at the back. Whether it was the Keystone Kops of Phil Jones and Smalling colliding in the 14th minute, or Rio Ferdinand yelling at Jones for not receiving a pass, only for Jones to yell back that Rio "threw the ball away," United's back line did not cover itself in glory. Nor did Lindegaard, whose confidence (and ability to hold on to the ball) plummeted as the match went on. United's two options between the sticks, Lindegaard and the heavily criticized David de Gea, are both shaky at the moment.
Of course, it's always dangerous to make sweeping conclusions from a derby, so we'll have to see whether United's victory has any bearing on the title race. Mancini's men can take comfort in the fact that they almost equalized against all odds (and without, remember, Yaya Toure and Gareth Barry in midfield), while Ferguson's side failed to exact debilitating revenge for the 6-1 loss in October. League play resumes next weekend, when City will look to stretch its three-point lead at the top. Will Ferguson bring on reinforcements, or is Scholes the sum total? The manager's constant harping that there's no value in the transfer market rings increasingly hollow, and United won't be able to count on Foy next time. But it also ended a two-match losing skid and set up a fourth-round FA Cup tie at Liverpool. The season keeps getting more intriguing.