Four minutes of stoppage time was shown at Old Trafford, yet with 95:28 on the clock, Michael Owen picked up a through pass from Ryan Giggs and dinked the ball over Shay Given to break City hearts and controversially give United three Manchester derby points.
United had brought on Michael Carrick during the allotted four minutes of extra time, and Craig Bellamy had raced down the pitch to equalise just as the clock ticked over the 90 mark, so it was inevitable the time added on would creep over four minutes. So with 94:46 on the clock, the referee awards United a free-kick that 42 seconds later results with the ball in the back of the net. Another 16 seconds after that and the final whistle goes. Anyone who has been following Manchester City through the summer knows all about the numbers game and how they quickly add up, and although many may wish City an early downfall, few will begrudge Mark Hughes and his men a slight moan for the manner of the defeat on Sunday. However, the added time is at the referee’s discretion and no doubt the reaction at the end of the game was as much about the frustration of having seen his side earn so much to see it thrown away at the death.
City had three times come back into a game they had no right to, with Carlos Tevez, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Craig Bellamy offering more than a just the occasional breather for their defenders, bursting forward with regularity and precision in possession. Out of it and the front men harrowed the United back-line into uncharacteristic errors that resulted in two of their goals.
Losing as late as City did and in the manner they did somewhat took the shine off an otherwise better-than-expected performance from the Citizens. Hughes lined the side up in that conservative 4-5-1, and given the perceived lack of attacking options available to him, it played to City’s strengths in that central area. Stephen Ireland, Nigel de Jong and Gareth Barry were able to keep possession with the help of their centre-backs, and although United went through 10-minute spells of 80% possession, City more than held their own on the ball and made sure their time on it was both efficient and clinical. It was refreshing to see a game of football with so few throw-ins – perhaps testament to the new style of derby we can expect to see for the forthcoming seasons.
Beyond the referee’s contribution to the game, what will frustrate Hughes the most about the game was the team’s inability at handling the crosses coming into the box. Time and again – particularly down City’s right – United were able to get balls into the box and more often than not they were met with red shirts – Dimitar Berbatov with two notable chances in a short spell. Wright-Phillips’ slow reaction at fault for the first goal can be put down to a one-off – defending isn’t in the boy’s nature, but Darren Fletcher’s brace was avoidable. As was failing to deal with the chipped ball into the area that fell to Ryan Giggs who promptly found Owen for the winner.
Coming up against Sir Alex Ferguson, Mark Hughes must have realised the statement a strong performance would send out to the rest of the league. Looking back on the game, United showed a great deal of respect to this City side, regularly keeping back both Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic for free-kicks you often see one of them go up for. City’s speed and flow going forward pushed the Red Devils all the way through the game – Vidic was forced into a cynical yellow-card foul on Wright-Phillips as he threatened to go all the way through to goal, whilst Bellamy ensured Ferdinand’s error was capitalised on. City had few chances in the game, but took them when they were presented.
But the defence….wasn’t good enough. At a cost of £54m, City have overpaid for a back-line of defenders that looked ragged at times (that is only for three of the players too). Going to Old Trafford will give any side’s goalkeeper a busy afternoon, but coupled with the Arsenal game the week before, City are backing off their supposed rivals from the top four. Both the Gunners and United dominated possession and found gaps down the wings and across the back four to exploit. Three points from the two games may be better than expected and can be put down to the stellar performances in attack, but the double-header has left plenty of food for thought for Hughes.
Manchester City Club Focus
E.A. sports both sides of his game against Arsenal – September 15
City travel across town £100m-worth of talent lighter – September 18
Error-strewn defence to blame for derby-day heartbreak – September 22