The banner in the City end read "England's Barcelona" but, in truth, it did not feel that way. The passing was unusually careless at times, the defending was totally out of keeping from the City of last season and there were moments – Aleksandar Kolarov kicking a corner straight out for a goal‑kick, Yaya Touré directing a six‑yard ball into the path of Wayne Rooney – when Roberto Mancini could be seen on the touchline, screaming to the skies. City's manager maintains they will not be good enough to win the league unless they bring in at least two more players. The truth or simply a ploy to put pressure on his board? The answer probably lies somewhere in between but, on the balance of play, it is difficult to take issue with his sentiment before the game that City are "five yards" behind Sir Alex Ferguson's team.
It was always likely there would be a mistake early in David de Gea's Manchester United career. He is 20 years old, in a new country, and it would have been unreasonable to imagine he could go about the job of replacing Edwin van der Sar without the odd moment when United fans must have pined for the older man. The important thing is how he reacts and, specifically, whether he has the strength of character to get it out of his system quickly – because the Premier League can be an unforgiving place. The issue for Ferguson, though, is whether to persist with him against West Bromwich Albion next Sunday or to bring in Anders Lindegaard? Only the worst form of kneejerker would start to compare him with Massimo Taibi – there were, for instance, two splendid, morale‑boosting saves in the second half – but there is a case that, temporarily at least, Lindegaard might make better sense.
The Portuguese could be forgiven for feeling aggrieved at times since the latter stages of last season. First, he did not even make it on the Professional Footballers' Association player‑of‑the‑year shortlist, despite the penetrative, sometimes mesmeric wing play that eventually led to his winning United's own award. He lost his place to Antonio Valencia for the Champions League final against Barcelona and then Ferguson began the summer by splashing out around £14m for a like-for-like player in Ashley Young. Some players would sulk. Yet Nani has merely set about the business of reminding us why the PFA got it so badly wrong. Afterwards Sir Alex Ferguson talked of the 24-year-old having "never been in Cristiano Ronaldo's shadow". That might have been stretching the truth somewhat but on this form there can be few more devastating wide players in the world.
The problem when writing about Mario Balotelli is that he is that rare breed of player who can warp opinion from one match to the next. You praise him one week and he will be sent off the next. You criticise him and the following weekend he is liable to score the winner. The safest option is probably never to look too far into the future but, on this evidence, Mancini clearly has some more work to do before Balotelli can be regarded as even close to being a reliable first‑team pick. This was the classic Balotelli bad-day performance: a nose-to-nose with one opponent, some play-acting, a few decent passes here and there but nothing very productive at all, resulting in the almost inevitable substitution, the mandatory strop and the feeling once again that City need more. The next time we see him, of course, it might be a Balotelli good-day performance and he might just have stuck the ball in the top corner. Welcome to the weird and wacky world of Mario Balotelli.
In fairness Michael Carrick had been troubled by an achilles injury in the build-up to this match; Sir Alex Ferguson, true to form, had actually ruled him out on Friday. morning But it was still noticeable how United's performance moved up a notch once Cleverley came off the bench to replace him at half-time. He was bright and inventive, wanting to make things happen, eager to impress and he brought a vitality to a part of the pitch where United are often lacking. This is not to denigrate Carrick's ability to pass the ball but there was one moment after 19 minutes that typified the player he has become. Nani laid the ball into his path, 25 yards from goal. The crowd howled for what seemed an inevitable shot and yet, with no defenders in proximity, Carrick did not feel confident enough to strike the ball, tried an extra pass, got it all wrong and the chance was gone. At the very least Cleverley – much like Chris Smalling – has made a powerful case to be in Ferguson's thoughts.