Sergio Aguero’s solitary strike proved to be decisive, as Manchester City edged 10-man Manchester United 1-0 to move up to third in the Barclays Premier League. It was a high-intensity, fast-paced, pulsating contest with brilliant saves, a couple of nasty tackles, turned-down penalty appeals, and a well-crafted goal.
It was a Manchester derby with the defending champions and title favorites taking on the side that has splashed over £150m the past summer on reinforcements. But this time the former is Manchester City and the latter, Manchester United. Such has been the shift in power that even former United legend, Peter Schmeichel, had observed earlier in the week that City were currently the bigger club. Not that a derby ever needs extra motivation, but there was quite a lot at stake for both teams.
City had suffered a shock defeat at the hands of West Ham last weekend and were dumped out of the Carling Cup in midweek. Manchester United, on the other hand, got off to their worst start in the Premier League era with a mere 13 points from 9 games despite hiring high profile manager Louis van Gaal and breaking the club record for transfers this summer. While a stoppage time equalizer from Robin van Persie may have salvaged a point at home against league-leaders Chelsea, United knew they needed to start winning against the title contenders to retain any hope of reaching the top four, let alone challenging for the title.
City were without central defender Mangala, meaning Martin Demichelis started at center back along side captain, Vincent Kompany. Birthday-boy Stevan Jovetic got the nod ahead of Edin Dzeko to partner Sergio Aguero to spearhead the City attack and Gael Clichy replaced Aleksandar Kolarov who was reportedly injured just prior to the game. United welcomed back captain Wayne Rooney from a three-game suspension but were without injured striker Radamel Falcao. Marouane Fellaini retained his place in midfield following his impressive display against Chelsea as Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo became the eighth different centerback pairing deployed Manchester United in 9 games.
United started playing brightly at a high tempo and moved the ball with ease, but it was City who carved the first real opening when intricate passing around the penalty box led to Jesus Navas being denied by fellow countryman David de Gea from point blank range. De Gea was called into action moments later when Aguero connected to a cross from the left flank, but once again the United Player of the Month for October was up to the task.
With half time fast approaching, Chris Smalling lunged into a rather needless challenge on James Milner, earning him a second yellow card and condemning United to 10 men for the best part of fifty minutes. With United fast running out of centerbacks, van Gaal gave Michael Carrick his first appearance of the season as Adnan Janujaz reluctantly made way. City had two legitimate penalty appeals denied, first one for a foul on Aguero and second for a tug on Yaya Toure in what proved to be the final act of the first half.
Following half time, City hit the ground running, causing the United defense plenty of problems with an unrelenting barrage of forays into the box. Just when it looked it could not get worse for United, Marcos Rojo dislocated his shoulder going for a challenge. He had to be stretchered off and was replaced by nineteen year-old Paddy McNair who was making only his third senior appearance for the club.
Referee Michael Oliver denied City a third penalty, this time waving away what looked like a kick on the heel by Carrick on Aguero. However, Sergio Aguero was to have the last laugh. Yaya Toure carved the United defense open with a through ball to the left flank. Gael Clichy, who had made one of his trademark lung-busting forays played a smart cut back which was clinically finished by Aguero, his sixth goal in only his seventh Manchester derby.
With a goal and a man down and the best part of half an hour remaining, the United fans could have feared the worst with the horror of the 6-1 drubbing two seasons ago still fresh in the memories. However, all that changed when Robin van Persie turned two defenders near the touchline and fired a low powerful drive on-target. Joe Hart, who had been a spectator for large parts of the game saved with his feet.
Then came what was arguably the moment of the match: Rooney received the ball near the center, skipped past Toure, rode a challenge, nutmegged Kompany, and was shaping to let fly when, rather shockingly, the man with best scoring record in Manchester derbies decided to take an extra touch and bring the ball to his right foot. The moment had gone! Angel di Maria’s ensuing shot was parried behind by Hart.
United’s best chance, however, would fall to Marouane Fellaini. Dead balls and crosses up to Fellaini or van Persie had become United’s best bet and for most of the afternoon, Kompany had done a great job keeping his fellow countryman in check, save the one time when Fellaini managed to get the better of him and with the just six yards out and only Hart to beat, he managed to head the ball onto his shoulders and see it roll harmlessly past the post.
Five minutes were added on and one could almost hear the groan around the Etihad stadium but there would be no late drama this week. Toure and Fernandinho both missed chances to seal United’s fate late on but in the end, City Man of the Match Sergio Aguero’s goal would be enough to see City close the gap on Chelsea and more importantly earn their fans the local bragging rights.
Elsewhere in the league, the Chelsea juggernaut kept rolling with Eden Hazard converting the decisive penalty against QPR. Burnley managed to keep Arsenal at bay for seventy minutes before the Gunners sealed a 3-0 victory. Newcastle kept their revival alive with a 1-0 win over struggling Liverpool. The moment of the weekend perhaps belonged to one Victor Wanyama, whose 40-yard piledriver sealed victory for the Saints, taking Southampton to a surprise second place.