Manchester United have not suffered an evisceration so painful since winning the inaugural Premier League title – its first English championship in 26 years – in 1993. Sir Alex Ferguson has since built teams with an indelible determination, an almost intangible quality that more often than not has seen the club through the most adverse of circumstances. His is a side that snatches victory from the jaws of defeat; a team with the irrepressible habit of playing poorly, and winning. Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United simply do not do humiliation.
On Sunday 23 October 2011, that changed. Manchester City played with a wit, verve and callousness that have rarely been witnessed on these shores. Their opponents – the 19-time title winners, lest we forget – were breached six times. The Red Devils’ reply, sumptuous though Darren Fletcher’s curled effort ten minutes from time was, merely served to re-ignite the Blues insatiable thirst for goals. Roberto Mancini’s men were simply magnificent.
It was a performance that threatens to change the landscape of English football. Sure, the blue half of Manchester has celebrated victories over their more celebrated rivals before. However, victories have merely served to confound the eternal order. They were momentary respite for a loyal fan-base weaned on false promises, romantic hopes of glory and the distressing certainty that, irrespective of their achievements, they were always to be secondary to United.
Not anymore. Mancini’s men moved the ball with surgical precision. City’s movement exposed the weaknesses at the heart of their opponents defence and, once Johnny Evans was sent off for a cynical last-man foul on Mario Balotelli, maximised the space afforded to the attack by their one-man advantage. The chances they created were plentiful. The callousness with which they were finished off bordered on disdainful. It was, suffice to say, the performance of champions.
When champions are disposed of by six goals, there has to be a caveat, and perhaps Evans’ dismissal early in the second-half acts as that. Three of City’s goals came in the final ten minutes. The extremely cynical may be moved to argue that they add an illusory sheen to the score.
The reality is that the goals were symptomatic of the ruthlessness with which City reacted to their one-man advantage. Each and every pass was chosen with due care, designed to inflict the maximum impact on wearied limbs. Physically and mentally, they eroded away at a once impenetrable unit. Creating triangles, playing one-two passes and outnumbering their opponents on the flanks, the ball was moved with a patience that suggested they knew goals would come. Those heady final ten minutes were the summation of the work from the previous eighty.
Given the cohesion of passing and the intelligence of movement, the collective nature of City’s victory renders singling out individuals for special praise somewhat unfair. Yet nobody quite embodied the team’s ability to use the ball so sensibly and skilfully as David Silva. Supplemented by James Milner’s forceful running, and the overlapping of Gael Clichy and Micah Richards from full-back, City simply submerged their more celebrated opponents. Mario Balotelli and Edin Dzeko’s braces, added to by Sergio Aguero and Silva, were less the work of individuals than they were the culmination of an awesome team display.
At the very least, they were six reminders of Manchester City’s title credentials. In time, they may come to be seen as symbolic of the afternoon the power structure at the top of the Premier League changed forever.
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