MANCHESTER // If it was the derby of all derbies, as Sir Alex Ferguson had said, this was the win of all wins for Manchester City. They are tantalisingly close to ending 44 years of hurt, two games away from claiming a first title since 1968.
Vincent Kompany's headed winner capped City's remarkable renaissance. Four games and less than four weeks ago, they trailed Manchester United by eight points. Now they lead them on goal difference. Now only Newcastle and QPR stand between them and the sweetest of triumphs.
In 118 years of Mancunian meetings, this threatens to be the most decisive derby of them all. In terms of incident, it was the quietest of the four Mancunian meetings this season. Not that there was anything tranquil about it. Not with the helter-skelter air to proceedings on the pitch and the incessant noise from the stands. The noisy neighbours, as Ferguson disparagingly branded City two-and-a-half years ago, have rarely been louder.
Kompany raised the decibel level at the Etihad Stadium. The City captain has experienced fluctuating fortunes against United this season. His injury-time error allowed Nani to score the winner in the Community Shield. His challenge on the Portuguese led to an early expulsion in the FA Cup clash. Yet he has skippered City to a 6-1 win at Old Trafford and, last night, scored the only goal against them.
Comparatively little had happened until the Belgian struck. But when the breakthrough came, it was simple. David Silva delivered a corner, Kompany rose above Chris Smalling and powered a header past David de Gea.
In an instant, United's game plan was rendered redundant. They had come to contain, safe in the knowledge that a draw suited them. Ferguson had sacrificed a striker, Danny Welbeck, to strengthen his midfield. Park Ji-sung was introduced and delegated to man-mark Yaya Toure.
If United's appeared the more defensive side, they made the more attacking start. There were optimistic appeals for a penalty when Michael Carrick's volley struck Kompany. At times, United's five-man midfield pressed their four City counterparts; at others, they dropped off to erect a nine-man wall in front of David de Gea's goal.
Roberto Mancini's side enjoyed the majority of possession and had a territorial advantage, but United were awkward, obdurate opponents. A quarter of the game had elapsed before a chance fell to City. Then, after Wayne Rooney's swipe had propelled the ball straight up in the air, Pablo Zabaleta touched the ball to Joleon Lescott, who glanced it on to Sergio Aguero. The Argentine hammered his volley high into the visiting fans. The City top scorer, being watched by father-in-law Diego Maradona, was off target again after Samir Nasri picked him out.
Yet while a 30th goal of the season eluded him, Kompany got his third. Thereafter the game of tactical chess resumed, but with a role reversal. Now United needed the goal. Ferguson sent for a striker, restoring Welbeck and removing Park. Mancini made the opposite move, reinforcing the midfield with Nigel de Jong at the expense of Carlos Tevez. Even before then, however, United had barely tested Joe Hart.
It was testament to the excellence of Kompany and Lescott, to the power of Toure, who twice almost doubled the lead, to the determination of Zabaleta, to the resolve of a City who have clawed their way back from the brink.
And it was a triumph for Mancini. If there had been a presumption the Italian would lose the battle of mind games with Ferguson, he has won both league meetings. His reward was a blast of the 'hairdryer' when the managers confronted each other after a cynical challenge by De Jong. Just like City, Mancini gave as good as he got.
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