MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - JANUARY 08: Referee Chris Foy sends off Vincent Kompany of Manchester City during the FA Cup Third Round match between Manchester City and Manchester United at the Etihad Stadium on January 8, 2012 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
A strange game in many ways, and one largely defined by a contentious incident that shaped the narrative of a compelling match. After waiting so long to once again taste success City's hold on the FA Cup was all too brief, defeat a disappointing and frustrating end to their defence of the famous old trophy. The spirited second half display (which - despite Alex Ferguson's post match comments - was more about City's efforts than United's failings) has left behind many positives (and rightly so), but for all the talk of a 'moral victory' or 'winning in their heads' the bottom line is that a defeat is a defat - regardless of how it is dressed up. The question now is how the side responds to this defeat. Can it be used a galvanising and motivating force? The evidence from setbacks this season very much suggests so.
Either side of the opening goal and red card City were the brighter side, with United cautious and wary in their approach. But once United settled against City's ten men they finished the half with some devastating play and City found themselves 3-0 down and left stunned at some clinical forward play by United as the benefit of extra man told. Time and again United had a man extra out wide (particularly on the right) and Wayne Rooney roaming between defence and midfield to great effect. Credit Roberto Mancini at half time though. His tactical switch - Stefan Savic and Pablo Zabaleta on for David Silva and Adam Johnson - saw three central at the back with the full backs pushing forward, nullifying the space and threat of Antonio Valencia and Luis Nani and allowing City to start their possessions at a far higher point on the pitch. This brought into play the midfield (particularly Nigel de Jong) and helped seize an unlikely initiative - one that almost paid dividends and highlighted again quite what a savvy operator Mancini is.
The sending off? I posted a fair amount up on Twitter following the game regarding this. At the game (i.e. watching live) without the benefit of replays I thought it a clear sending off. Although not entirely convinced that it wasn't a sending off offence, it is evidently not a clear cut red card and the more of it I do see (link here), the more I am inclined to think that Vincent Kompany was unlucky. There was certainly no lunge or jump from Kompany and no lack of control or recklessness on his part. At the very least there is enough doubt for it to be appealed to the FA (which Mancini confirmed post match that they will do), but equally it is difficult to see there being enough doubt about the decision for it to be overturned on appeal.
As much as the team ethic was impressive today, there were some very impressive individual performances in the defeat. None moreso than the trio of Micah Richards, James Milner and Sergio Aguero. Richards and Milner, full of sweat, industry and energy whilst Aguero's display (particularly in the second half) was a perfect example of how to play the lone striker role and was perhaps the best I have seen since Dmitar Berbatov for Tottenham in the Carling Cup a couple of seasons ago (the best individual performance I have ever seen). Less impressive though was Samir Nasri, not often favoured for key games but with absences elsewhere had a big opportunity that he failed to fulfill. With David Silva looking increasingly in need of a break, the onus needs to fall elsewhere but the odd flash aside Nasri has failed to deliver so far. Notable in conceding the first goal was his pulling out a challenge with Wayne Rooney; the starting point for United's opening goal and a move which will hardly endear him to Mancini.
There are certainly plenty of longer term ramifications from today, aside from the fact that City are out of the FA Cup. The Carling Cup semi-final against Liverpool now takes on a greater resonance and meaning, but the first leg (on Wednesday) comes on the back of a tough game that all but spent a man short. It seems likely that Kompany will miss the game (along with the second leg and Premier League games against Wigan and Tottenham) and with Kolo Toure away on International duty, a pairing of Joelon Lescott and Stefan Savic looks likely. Also evident was the absence in the midfield of both Gareth Barry and Yaya Toure; Barry albeit a brief one but Yaya's sizeable presence will be missed over the next month. With David Silva looking increasingly tired and no attacking options on the bench with injuries to Mario Balotelli and Edin Dzeko, perhaps Mancini's contention that the squad is not as deep as widely thought may actually carry some weight. That said, and despite defeat today, looking at the position City find themselves in heading into the second half of the season, would anyone really swap places with any other side?