Manchester City's Roberto Mancini went against his safety-first stereotype to outwit United's ageing engine-room
Life, they say, is all about the timing and when Vincent Kompany rose to a David Silva corner with the clock showing 45+1 to outjump Chris Smalling and head home, City were given the lead at the perfect juncture. Roberto Mancini had said before this 163rd derby: "First we have to concentrate on this game and then, if we win, we need to forget it quickly and move on to the next one. However, none of us must get carried away with the idea that this is the only important game left of the season." As the hour mark passed United had not created enough and City had dominated and were deserving of their lead and the win they were heading for to take firm hold of the destiny of this season's title. No team had won the Premier League in the position City started from at kick-off time at the Etihad Stadium: three points behind with three games left. Yet by the end it was time for Mancini to remind his players of what he had also said before: "We led the league for a long time but United were eight points clear after we drew two games and then lost to Arsenal, so maybe there is more pressure on United protecting that lead." There certainly is now. "The word I've heard the most this week is fear – fear of what might happen," said Gary Neville in the Sky Sports studio of how a win for United would be "keeping the inevitable at bay". With this result perhaps the flow of City domination has been triggered.
Critics of Roberto Mancini's conservatism pointed to the defensive City performance in the 1-0 defeat by Tottenham Hotspur here two seasons ago when failing to secure the win that would have secured Champions League qualification as an augury of how he might set up. Caution is anathema to the culture instilled in Manchester United by Sir Alex Ferguson – unless, of course, the theory went, in order to secure the draw that would leave their biggest rivals' title challenge moribund by keeping the gap to three points with two games remaining. When the team sheets were distributed, they showed that Mancini had gone against his Italian stereotype to pick a strongest XI featuring the attacking forces of David Silva, Samir Nasri, Carlos Tevez and Sergio Agüero, while Ferguson had embraced the safety-first route: Danny Welbeck was left out as Wayne Rooney was asked to operate as a lone striker ahead of a packed five-man midfield. By the close Mancini had clearly got the better of this strategic battle of the two managers and, when the too often isolated Rooney was joined by Welbeck, Ferguson effectively conceded his 4-5-1 had not worked.
In Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick United had an engine room with a combined age of 105 that early on looked to press at Gareth Barry, Yaya Touré and company. But the visitors' early spell of pressure dissolved and City dominated the United trio in red to allow Touré and Barry to build as Silva and Nasri began the pattern of getting in beyond the opposing waves of defence – either centrally or down the flanks. Park Ji-sung and Nani were the fourth and fifth members of the United midfield five but, if they were supposed to track the surging runs of Touré and stifle Silva and Nasri as they flowed down the corridors, Ferguson needed to have a word at half-time. Nasri was particularly effective in driving down Patrice Evra's left-hand side and bashing in low crosses that asked questions of the United rearguard while Scholes operated too often as a static quarter-back.
Despite Tevez's troubles this season his team-mates have been lining up to offer thanks for his return as they see in him the swagger required to become champions. Rooney is United's own A-list striker but in a quiet opening half of scant pickings his 'highlights' were nearly being booked by Andre Marriner for giving the referee too much ear-ache, and a hashed clearance from a Nasri corner that allowed Joleon Lescott to head on and Agüero to blast just wide with a volley. While Tevez's trademark scampering off the front in search of possession offered his team no joy there was a flash of quality from him when he moved in behind the United defence from a Nasri ball that allowed him to turn the ball across David de Gea's goal before Phil Jones stuck out a leg to clear.
After the longest build-up for a match of this magnitude in memory electricity coursed from the players to the crowd and back again. A Rooney ride-then-dive of a Pablo Zabaleta tackle near Mancini
brought howls of "Cheat!' and the City manager strode through the technical area to warn Marriner not to be fooled. When Kompany was booked for placing a foot on Rooney and the striker stayed down the Etihad was equally incandescent. Not as angry, though, as Ferguson got with Mancini on 75 minutes as the Scot squared up to his Italian counterpart over the booking of Nigel de Jong. The United manager may be in his 70s but he is still callow enough to allow an occasion like this to get to him.