x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Manchester's Reds know how to leave City blue

United's 2-1 derby victory at Old Trafford, thanks to Wayne Rooney, means they can claim local bragging rights over their big-spending neighbours for now.

Carlos Tevez struggles to fend off the challenge of Chris Smalling, who put in a commanding performance for United.
Carlos Tevez struggles to fend off the challenge of Chris Smalling, who put in a commanding performance for United.

There were jangling red nerves in Manchester as the new season began. United's reluctance to bring in big-name players, combined with the lavish purchases of neighbours City, such as David Silva and Yaya Toure, meant that more pessimistic United supporters thought that the blue half of the city would finish above them for the first time since 1991.

Such has been United's dominance, and not only in Manchester, that the average points difference between United and City at the season's end since the 1990s has been 36. But investment from Abu Dhabi has created an agreeable new dynamic for City fans.

Manchester's more successful club before the Second World War, City are tired of living in United's shadow and hoped to spend their way to parity and beyond.

They loathe the odometer hanging from the Stretford End celebrating the number of years since they last won a trophy. It shows 35 now, a bit ahead of the actual anniversary of a 1976 League Cup success.

Until City bag a trophy, their neighbours will gloat and sing "35 years" while City will retort with "And we're still here" to affirm their loyalty.

A city-centre party organised by the former United defender (and childhood City fan) David May to celebrate the trophy drought had sold out - only to be cancelled after authorities objected.

The points gap had narrowed to five (albeit with a game in hand for league-leaders United) before yesterday's game at Old Trafford, while the derby has gone from being a regional affair to one of the most eagerly awaited on the planet alongside Spain's el clasico.

While Barcelona beat Real Madrid 5-0 in November's exciting encounter, this season's first Manchester derby was turgid and goalless. City were cautious and strongest in defence to prevent a repeat of the late goals which cost them two derbies last term.

Yet respect for City's system saw United shift their tactics before yesterday's derby, with Sir Alex Ferguson, the United manager, so concerned about City "overloading the middle" of the pitch that he left his leading goalscorer, Dimitar Berbatov, on the bench, preferring to "put all the footballers in there".

Given his success in past derbies, it was understandable why Paul Scholes started for only the 11th time this season, yet it was risky to depend on the out-of sorts Wayne Rooney to spearhead a 4-5-1 formation.

It took three minutes for City to create a chance, something they had been incapable of when the teams last met, with the sublime David Silva unable to steer the ball past Edwin van der Sar. Roberto Mancini's side shone, basking in the rare Mancunian winter sunshine.

No team had beaten United at Old Trafford this season, but City were superior in the first half, Silva, Yaya Toure and Micah Richards most effective.

That the opening goal went to the home side was so typical of United, an attack against the run of play which saw a Ryan Giggs pass cut the City defence and a cool 40th-minute finish by Nani, who is rapidly becoming United's talisman.

"This is how it feels to be City," teased the relieved United fans to the tune of a 1990s song by the Inspiral Carpets, "This is how it feels to be small. This is how it feels when your team wins nothing at all."

Intelligent substitutions saw City pressure and equalise with a deflected Silva shot in the 65th minute. It was a cruel goal for United's defence, whose outstanding performer was stand-in centre-back Chris Smalling.

"Hark now hear, the City sing, United ran away," chorused the 3,000 delirious blues in the 75,000 crowd.

United ran, but not away. Instead, Rooney scored a spectacular overhead bicycle kick, the first of his career, to win the game in the 76th minute. He later said it was the best goal he had ever scored. It was the difference between two sides who had both set out to win.

United are four points clear of Arsenal at the top and eight clear of City with a game in hand. The Reds remain the kings of Manchester, for now, but Mancini maintained he was proud of his players and City fans will similarly maintain that they are satisfied with their continued progression and improvement.

"We shall not be moved," sang United fans at the final whistle. Not even by City.

Report: Rooney fires Manchester United to win over City in local derby

sports@thenational.ae