How does one find the ability to write objectively when feeling as low as this?
A record 19th title and a 4th European Cup are beckoning, but at this moment they wrongly feel like mere consolation. Indeed out of the three trophies the FA Cup is the one that most United fans would concede if it meant getting our hands on the other two, but losing to our lazer-blue brethren has left a ‘words can’t do it justice’ feeling of stunned disconsolation.
It isn’t even that City are now one-step away from “tearing down that ticker banner” that’s doing it – after spending almost half a billion pounds it was an inevitability that at some point they’d pick something up, it is because of the way that we gifted them the game and once we were behind never looked like scoring.
Don’t let that last statement take anything away from City’s performance, they set their stall out as always; go in with a clean sheet at half-time and when they an opportunity arises, take it. United dominated the opening half an hour and really should have been a goal ahead after Dimitar Berbatov missed two glorious chances. The first of which produced a great save from Joe Hart but the second is inexcusable; the Bulgarian somehow lifted the ball over the bar from inside the six-yard box.
It wasn’t Berbatov’s day, he rarely asked for the ball and when he did the others didn’t want to feed it to him because he was standing on his heels. He was dispossessed time and again by the outstanding Vincent Kompany and his usually sublime touch was failing him.
Time and again we have seen that playing Berbatov up front on his own doesn’t work and yet in what was arguably the biggest game of the season so far he was selected to do so. Park Ji-Sung is not the right player to have as a link-up man between midfield and a lone-striker like Berbatov. Anderson would’ve been a far better selection because of his battling nature and attacking drive that would’ve offered the enigmatic Bulgarian the support he lacked.
After the first thirty minutes City and particularly their midfield began to control the game. Mario Balotelli forced a save from van der Sar after a powerful effort and a Kompany effort went even closer just before the break. Yaya Toure was pulling the strings and it was only fitting that in the 53rd minute he opened the scoring. The Ivorian capitalised on a trio of errors by United; first Rio Ferdinand’s back pass to Edwin van der Sar put the Dutchman under unnecessary pressure, then van der Sar’s clearance went straight to Michael Carrick who was dispossessed after poor control by Toure who took it around Vidic to slot home.
Hopefully the error won’t affect Carrick in the same way that previous mistakes have. The midfielder has had a renaissance in the past few weeks and performed to the high standards of his first few years at United, but if history tells us anything about the midfielder it’s that he doesn’t respond well to making faults.
United response was poor after going behind and could’ve found themselves two goals down if Joleon Lescott had done better with a free header. Javier Hernandez was then introduced in place of Antonio Valencia but was ineffectual; not because of his movement but the lack of movement from others that rendered his efforts futile. He drifted left to create the space time and again, but Park Ji-Sung failed to move into the gaps made by the Mexican. Quite why Valencia and not Park was replaced remains a mystery.
United’s only real chance in the second-half came from a deflected Nani free-kick which Joe Hart did well to tip onto the bar. The game was then over as a contest when Paul Scholes was sent-off for a high challenge on Zabaleta with just over quarter of an hour to go. Berbatov’s afternoon ended when he was replaced by Anderson – whose introduction was too little, too late, shortly after the sending-off.
Fabio da Silva replaced John O’Shea with six minutes to go in attempt to create some attacking impotus, but bar a few Patrice Evra runs and hopeful efforts United never threatened and were there for the taking if City were a bit more adventurous. They saw out the victory in their brand of catenaccio that Roberto Mancini has favoured all season professionally and congratulations must go their way. Despite the stats telling a different story, City wanted it more. Their players stood up to be counted and just as United have succeeded as a team in recent weeks, yesterday they failed.
Time heals all wounds, amongst other clichés, and while the bitter taste of this defeat will linger for a long time, the sweet taste of cake without icing will go some way towards countering it – especially if said cake is decorated with 19 candles.
The Starting line-up
1. van der Sar 6; 22. O’Shea 6(20. Fabio 84), 5. Ferdinand 6, 15. Vidic 6, 3. Evra 6; 18. Scholes 73 5, 16. Carrick 6, 13. Park 5, 25. Valencia 6(Hernandez 65 5), 17. Nani 6; 9. Berbatov 5(8. Anderson 74 7).
Referee: Mike Dean