DID today really bring us the best Manchester derby of all time? Maybe it did if you were a United fan. It certainly did if you were United’s manager. City supporters probably won’t put it at the top of their list, but have plenty of positives to take away too, even in defeat. Here are 10 thoughts on today’s game.
1. Michael Owen’s not bad really. When Manchester United played a pre-season friendly against Valencia, Owen missed three or four clear-cut chances. The United fans weren’t getting on his back that night, but they were hardly left full of confidence that he was the answer to their attacking questions. He answered them today.
Whether Owen can sprint his way through a full 90 minutes any more is open to debate. But give him the ball 15 yards from goal in the closing seconds of a match, and there’s no one better.
2. Even as the Earth spins off its axis and hurtles into the sun, turning the entire human race into toast, Craig Bellamy will carry on dividing public opinion. Bellamy is one of only five players to have scored in the Premier League for six clubs. Only Marcus Bent achieved that feat at a younger age.
This tells us two things about Bellamy: a) that a lot of Premier League managers have been keen to buy him, and b) a lot of Premier League managers have ultimately been willing to sell him.
He’s a great player, as he demonstrated with two wonderfully-taken goals this afternoon. Did he really need to slap the fan who ran on to the pitch at the end? I would suggest not.
3. Always play to the final whistle, not the fourth official’s board. In the first match I ever played for my junior school, the referee – actually a teacher at the school we were playing against – allowed the second half to last 12 minutes longer than the first. Despite this, our defence held firm and we won 1-0. Hurrah.
Yes, Martin Atkinson played seven minutes of stoppage time when the fourth official had only signalled four this afternoon. That was no reason to leave Michael Owen unattended in the penalty area with the ball at his feet.
4. Ryan Giggs may well be immortal. Giggs played in his first Manchester derby in May 1991. For some reason, all official records state that he scored the winner that day, even though TV pictures clearly show it to be a Colin Hendry own goal.
Eighteen years later, Giggs is still haring up and down the pitch, making a major impact on games.
He scored a belting free kick at Tottenham last weekend. Today, he provided the pass for Owen’s winner. I dread to think what state the picture in Giggs’ attic is in.
5. Manchester City are capable of scoring at the Stretford End. Two seasons ago, City won at Old Trafford. It was their first victory there since 1974, Denis Law’s backheeled goal and all that.
By and large, City’s away record against United over the last three-and-a-half decades has been dreadful. Put it this way: they’ve picked up fewer wins at Old Trafford over the last 35 years than Norwich.
Today, at least they brought one barren run to an end. When Gareth Barry coolly slotted in a first-half equaliser, it was City’s first goal at the Stretford End since December 1992, when Niall Quinn scored in a 2-1 defeat. (Incidentally, United second goal that day, which turned out to be the winner, was scored by a certain Mark Hughes.)
6. Ben Foster may not go to the World Cup after all. With Edwin van der Sar injured, Foster has had an extended chance to impress England boss Fabio Capello in the early weeks of this season. Today was probably the biggest game of Foster’s career – and he let in two very soft goals.
The United keeper will have nightmares about the way Carlos Tevez robbed him on the edge of the area to set up Gareth Barry’s equaliser. And Foster didn’t exactly cover himself in glory as Craig Bellamy went past him to make it 3-3.
I suspect that when Van der Sar is fit again, Foster will return to bench duty. With Robert Green, David James, Paul Robinson and Chris Kirkland all first choices at their respective clubs, Foster will do well to make Capello’s 23 for South Africa.
7. Shay Given is the best goalkeeper in the Premier League. Mark Hughes has spent something like £220million on players since he took over at Manchester City. For all the fortunes he spent on Tevez, Lescott, Adebayor, Toure and others, his best signing has been Given.
Curiously, Given’s signing wasn’t universally welcomed at first by City fans, who felt it was harsh to drop Joe Hart to the bench when the young keeper had done so well during the previous season-and-a-half. They were soon won over when they saw Given in action.
He was brilliant today. But for him, City wouldn’t have been in a position to get so close to saving a point. And that’s why Hughes signed him.
8. Manchester City won’t win anything this season unless they learn to defend crosses. Darren Fletcher scored two headed goals for United in the second half. His team-mates had a bagful of chances to head a few more.
Mark Hughes will probably spend a good deal of time in training this week getting his men to practise defensive heading. I lost count of the number of times during the second half that City’s back line lost the players they were supposed to be marking at set-pieces.
9. Manchester derbies once again really mean something beyond local pride. I wasn’t born when City and United dominated the football landscape in the late 1960s, when Manchester derbies were also title deciders.
In the 1970s, they were often distractions from league campaigns going nowhere fast. For large chunks of the 1980s and 1990s, they weren’t even annual events, thanks to City’s trips out of the top flight.
Even though City have picked up a fair few home wins over United since returning to the Premier League in 2002, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men have invariably gone on to win a cup or two anyway.
Today’s game had the feel of a Big Four clash. Ferguson’s celebrations at the end showed home much it meant to him. He hasn’t enjoyed a derby win as much as that one for a long time.
10. This is not the end of the story. City and United will meet again at Eastlands in mid-April, and I would expect more than pride to be at stake for both sides. At the very least, there will be Champions League places at stake – maybe even the league title.
“We are not going away,” Hughes said before today’s game. He’s right. City are serious players in the Premier League now. If the next derby clash is half as gripping as today’s, it will have us all on the edge of our seats.