A moment to savour...even if it proved to be in vain - Clive Mason
As the club attempt to look towards a tricky encounter against Newcastle this weekend, it is worth reflecting on a dramatic Manchester Derby that lived up to its billing as the biggest game of the EPL season....
The stoppage time winner from one-time target RVP ended the unbeaten record this season, with it the long undefeated home run and put the title rivals from down the road in the box seat ahead of the Christmas schedule. For many Blues the galling impact of that goal will take longer to heal than the cut on Rio Ferdinand’s brow, but the intensity of the fight back and the quality of the football shown by the home side has been largely ignored amidst the dramatics on the pitch at the games climax and the mindless actions of a minority in the Etihad stadium.
For many, the biggest positive to come from the match was the performance of Pablo Zabaleta - praised on this blog throughout the campaign and now largely receiving the credit he deserves for developing into one of the best full backs in the country. For a spell it appeared that Zabaleta would find his niche amongst the star names at the Etihad as a squad bot, a versatile professional unlikely to quibble when sat in the stands for multiple matches and steady and reliable enough when called into action. The affection he attained from the fans upon his arrival at the club onwards was based largely on his 100% commitment and combative nature aligned with the familiarity of a player who is well aware of his technical limitations but does his utmost to defy them. During the run in last season that perception changed and in the first third of this season he has kicked on, mostly eradicating the tendency to lunge in and commit early and further developing his attacking threat - the main reason Richards arguably had the edge over him for large spells of the last campaign. His strike to equalise with 4 minutes remaining was a moment to cherish irrespective of what was to follow. Zabaleta lives and breathes the club and the transition from cult hero to key player is now complete.
Prior to the opening goal and for long spells in the 2nd half City played progressive high tempo football that had the visitors pinned back for long periods. Yes United were impressive with the efficiency and incisiveness of their counter attacking play down the flanks, but the collective tenacity shown by the home side would have overwhelmed any other Premiership outfit.
When Carlos Tevez was introduced - to immediate predictable effect - this served to add fuel to the Balotelli selection conundrum, yet that aside, Sergio Aguero's lateral movement throughout was a real problem for the defensive line of United even though he was a shade below his best. And if David Silva had an eye for the corner of the goal as he does for a threaded ball we would be talking about one of the worlds very best and City would have been level in this fixture far earlier than they actually were.
And for the bad....For Samir Nasri's most significant contribution of the season to be a timid defensive block leading to a conceded goal is damning for a player of his abilities. Even aside from his late error, there are too many fixtures when the Frenchman struggles to impact on the occasion. There must now be many questions for Mancini as to whether the midfield would have greater balance with another, arguably less talented player, taking his spot. Pretty but powderpuff in possession the feeling persists that when City are in full flow with Silva orchestrating, Nasri is mere background percussion.
And so to Mario Balotelli, whose Derby display was perceived a complete failure by many yet as ever there were many shades of grey to counter the prevalent black and white judgement. Although there was little in his performance to suggest that Tevez should not have started - very few City fans would have wanted otherwise - there was logic to the Balotelli selection, hoping to draw on his big match persona and evoke the memory of last season’s rampage at Old Trafford. Good movement and some intelligent play early on was punctuated by out of synch touches that failed to invigorate the Blues attack. The petulance as he was subbed is now so commonplace as to be rendered meaningless. The qualities Mario possesses have to outweigh the excess baggage and that has not been the case this season to date. On the flip side we are seeing an extremely talented footballer underperforming and appearing to lack confidence, pilloried by the media and publicly criticised frequently by Mancini. Some would argue that he has already been indulged for too long, but the classic 'arm round the shoulder' approach may be what this complex character warrants, not being hooked from a game after 50 minutes when his form didn't merit a start in the first place.
The ugly scenes that followed the winning goal - the coin thrown at Ferdinand and the rather pathetic pitch invasion - certainly did the club or its fans no favours. Idiotic actions are of course nothing new in the context of the Derby - think Bellamy's confrontation with a fan at Old Trafford in 2010 and the coin thrown at Beckham back in 2002 - and indeed in football in general. There will always be a mindless minority. Netting as has been mooted this week is no solution neither is draconian policing of times long past. Measures are being taken now to identify those people responsible and action will be taken accordingly if it hasn't already commenced. Common sense has to prevail without detracting from the experience of the passionate and well behaved supporters.
This game will certainly be viewed as a marker for the season for United but it also can be a marker for the positive for City too. If they can maintain the intensity of the display in the second half and channel the indefatigable spirit of last season when all seemed lost with six games remaining, then the current points deficit can be overturned as the fixtures come thick and fast over the ensuing weeks.