Commentary

The Devils get their due

Manchester City may have finally exorcised the demon next door

Updated: May 1, 2012, 3:23 PM ET
By David Hirshey | Special to ESPN.com

Vincent Kompany AP Photo/Mike EgertonVincent Kompany's header not only provided the difference against Man United but also lifted him into City lore.

The T-shirts began appearing in downtown Manchester six weeks ago, while United was eight points ahead of City in the table. "Champ20ns" they proclaimed on the front, as if United's record 20th league title was bagged, tagged and in the freezer on the way to Old Trafford.

And just to make sure their neighbors got the message, the back of the shirt added this cautionary note: "Money only gets you so far."

For sale: one T-shirt, heavily discounted, after City's seismic 1-0 victory over United on Monday at the Etihad.

Beyond that, whatever creative genius came up with that slogan should be forced to watch an entire Aston Villa match, as that is the lamest combination of letters and numbers since I sat through "Lucky Number S7evin." 2wice.

As for the B-side, we get it. City has spent a lot of money to bolster its squad. But so what? How many millions did Liverpool splash out for the honor of a mid-table finish? What's the current GDP on Chelsea's fifth-place effort? Did United grab all its players off the shelves at a post-Thanksgiving fire sale?

At least City has earned the right to say this now: If the Sky Blues win their remaining two games, including a daunting away fixture against high-flying Newcastle, they will win their first league title since 1968. After 44 years of enduring the gloating and taunting -- "a small club with a small mentality" -- from their smug crosstown rivals, they are on the brink of finally shucking the United monkey off their backs and stomping it to death. That's why Monday's surreal derby win felt more like an exorcism than an ascension to the Prem throne.

Not that they treated the soccer-loving world to the kind of spellbinding performance a game of this magnitude deserves, especially if you bought into the prematch hype that made Barca-Real look like a pub league kickabout. But at least they didn't buckle under the weight of the occasion like F3rgi3's team.

In retrospect, how hilarious was it that Sir Alex Ferguson assured the United faithful that "we're definitely going for the win" before wheeling out a bold, adventurous lineup that left Antonio Valencia, Danny Welbeck, Ashley Young, Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov on the bench? OK, that's unfair; Berbatov is always on the bench. But that's still a pretty decent array of attacking talent, particularly when you field a team that was unable to manage a single shot on target all game.

That's right. For the first time in three years, United didn't produce a shot that required a save. Nada. Zilch. For all the work he had to do in goal, Joe Hart could have jogged to the other end of the field to lend David de Gea a hand. In fact, the only real attack United mounted all game was when Fergie was menacing Roberto Mancini on the touchline late in the second half.

With Wayne Rooney isolated up front and unable to repeat his "poor little Wazza" routine that succeeded in getting Vincent Kompany sent off the last time City and United met, the Red Devils were bereft of any other ideas.

Not only did Kompany score the game's only goal, but the nails-hard City captain also stuffed Rooney so far down into his back pocket that all you saw were tendrils of his signature $50,000 hair transplant peeking out.

For much of the game you could have been forgiven if you thought it was Ferguson rather than Mancini who had grown up in Italy while being thoroughly schooled in the dark arts of risk-averse soccer. So negative and conservative was United's approach that you had to wonder whether a manager who had always prided himself on playing a swashbuckling attacking style had suddenly lost his nerve and reverted to the same cowardly tactics that led to unceremonious exits this season from both the Champions and Europa League competitions.

True, unlike City, United could settle for a draw, but Ferguson badly underestimated his neighbor's attacking intent. City seized the initiative from the opening kickoff with its quartet of tiki-takaing smurfs -- David Silva, Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero and Samir Nasri -- taking turns running at an increasingly jittery United back four. On those occasions when United contained them at the edge of the area, the majestic Yaya Toure would come thundering forward accompanied by Pablo Zabaleta and Gael Clichy galloping up the flanks.

City was relentless, and didn't let up until it had scored the vital goal just before intermission. It came from a Silva corner, the kind that once upon a time United's defense, anchored by their fearsome captain Nemanja Vidic, would have cut out with impudent ease. But the Serb went down with a season-ending injury in December and his replacements, Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling, have proved inadequate no matter how many times Ferguson hails their defensive prowess. Smalling -- starting in place of Evans, who was undressed by Everton in last week's 4-4 draw -- lost Kompany for a split second, long enough for the Belgian defender to outjump him and, with one powerful snap of his head, achieve City immortality.

When Kompany's header flew in, the camera panned to Mancini pumping a fist and Ferguson chewing furiously. For the first time in my life I felt sorry for a wad of gum. But that's really no way for me to speak about a legendary manager.

Fortunately, United is nothing if not resilient and with 45 minutes remaining, no one in the Etihad would have been surprised if the Red Devils had equalized and regained control of the title race. Surely Fergie would throw on a couple of his marquee attackers and give Rooney some much-needed support. Wasn't the interval between hairdryer blasts the perfect time to inject, say, the pace and power of Valencia into the game, given that the Ecuadorean has proven so adept this season at finding Rooney in the box with his dangerous crosses? In his infinite wisdom, Fergie decided to husband the biggest remaining gun in his holster until the 83rd minute.

[+] EnlargeJi-Sung Park
AP/PhotoPark Ji-Sung provided little before being replaced in the 58th minute.

Rather, just shy of the hour mark, Park Ji-Sung, the out-of-form good luck charm, was mercifully removed and replaced by Welbeck, who had dovetailed so well with Rooney in the Everton game. While Welbeck was lively, he and Rooney lacked their usual slick interplay.

Now it was Mancini's turn to motion to the bench. Would he completely repudiate his catenaccio-inflected DNA and go for the carotid artery by bringing on Mario Balotelli in the hope of scoring a second goal?

Mad Mario was certainly ready, dying his Mohawk white for the occasion and rocking a pair of low-grade weapons on his ears that would have looked at home on Diego Maradona, who was at the Etihad to cheer on his son-in-law Aguero and to get more television face time than even City's resident muppets, the risible Gallagher brothers.

But Mancini stayed true to his roots and chose to bring on Nigel De Jong, a player who is most comfortable when both tempers and studs start to rise, as they did when he launched into his first challenge. Welbeck served as the victim du jour, and while the tackle was perfectly legal, Ferguson flashed back to De Jong's World Cup kung-fu moment. High hilarity ensued as Sir Alex, the blood pooling in his face, raged first at the fourth official and then turned his vitriol toward Mancini. The City manager responded with the old sock-puppet hand gesture, telling him to shut his yap. For a brief moment it looked like we might get one of those slapstick managerial brouhahas Fergie once specialized in with Arsene Wenger and Rafa Benitez. Sadly it turned out to be nothing more than Bert and Ernie chatting about the number one.

"He refereed the game," Ferguson said of Mancini, without a soupcon of irony or self-awareness. "He was out on that touchline the whole game haranguing the fourth official and the linesman."

If nothing else, it was heartwarming to see that the 70-year-old Scot will not go gently into the good night. He still hasn't lost his maniacal appetite for winning, even if his bullying tactics look increasingly silly for a man of his age.

This was one of those nights when the wily old fox may have outsmarted himself. At the end, he was reduced to one last desperate gambit, bringing on "The Penalty Area Diver" in the 82nd minute. Even that move failed to have its desired effect, as United couldn't get the ball to Ashley Young in the box so he could hurl himself to the ground.

When the final whistle blew, Ferguson didn't break stride as he gave Mancini a perfunctory handshake and headed down the tunnel.

Meanwhile, the City players lingered on the field basking in the rare glow of their place at the top of both their city and the Premier League.

Of course, they could lose to Newcastle, so let's hold off on all T-shirt sales until we know what's what.

David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."