The Old Trafford defeat was a reminder that Sir Alex Ferguson's men have their weaknesses – and City can bounce back
The street sellers on Sir Matt Busby Way were already cashing in on Manchester United's 20th title. There were scarves that read: "Champ20ns." A banner with the simple message "20" had been attached to the statue of Best, Law and Charlton. Fans were wearing T-shirts proclaiming the end of Manchester City's reign ("Money can't buy you everything"). What was not entirely clear was whether these were new purchases or the same items that had been bought this time a year ago then stuffed to the back of the wardrobe when it gradually became clear they had been rushed out of the factories too quickly.
To be fair, who did not think United had won the league when City lost that game at Arsenal last season to fall eight points behind with six games to go? Roberto Mancini had said it was over and, though we did not know it at the time, was already making contingency plans in case he was sacked. Mario Balotelli had gone into meltdown and the memory still lingers of Mancini's players trudging over to the away supporters at the Emirates. It felt like a collective apology. "They knew it was over," this correspondent's match report read. Sometimes, in this business, you wish you could airbrush out the occasional paragraph.
Can City catch United again? No, that would be stretching the imagination a little too far bearing in mind the capitulation it would require from the team 12 points clear at the top of the league. Three wins and a draw would confirm it for Sir Alex Ferguson's side from their next seven matches. Even in the unlikely chance that this is beyond them, City would have to win every single game.
In reality, what happened at Old Trafford, a year to the day since that harrowing defeat at Arsenal, was more about the message it delivered. It was a reminder to United that the noise has not been turned down just yet, that things may have been a little quiet recently but that this lot next door are still determined to be heard.
What Mancini could not do was offer an explanation as to why City could play with such purpose and cohesion when their title defence had, on the whole, been so undistinguished. They had played like a throwback to last season, when their ability to attack from every angle, Mancini's organisational skills – and the unflinching attitude to show they were superior to United – made them such a formidable opponent. Yet this was a side that had pretty much been condemned to second, at best, since losing at Southampton in the second week of February.
The issue, perhaps, is of mentality; the fact they are still acclimatising to this level while taking on a collection of serial champions. Ferguson is going for his 13th title and the 39th trophy of his career, not even counting his 10 Community Shields. Mancini's managerial record is not too shabby either. Yet this is still fairly new ground for City and it is worth remembering sometimes how steep their upward trajectory has been. They did not even have anywhere to put the FA Cup in 2011 when they won their first trophy for 35 years (their new stadium had been converted without anyone thinking it was a good idea to have a purpose-built trophy cabinet). With a background like that, it was probably inevitable the success story would not be seamless. Ferguson, in his programme notes, described them as "a team that has joined the big boys." Perhaps it will need the jolt of having to hand over the championship trophy for City to get back the drive they showed last season.
For United, the damage is only superficial and it was probably one of those occasions when the best thing they can do is try to shake it out of their system as quickly as possible rather than dwelling on it. Too much can be read into one bad game sometimes and, on the whole, their league form probably deserves more acclaim than it is getting. "Our performance has been phenomenal," Ferguson says. "Nobody before us has won 25 out of 30 games and I take immense satisfaction from the high level of performance that has required ... it's certainly not our fault if there is a feeling of anti-climax around the remaining fixtures."
However, there is always the feeling that United's opponents have made it too easy for them – not in the sense of teams "rolling over", as Mancini claims, but more the number of sides who can legitimately claim to be having a good season. United are one, then there is Swansea City, Southampton, West Ham United and West Bromwich Albion. Tottenham Hotspur, as it stands, can be added to that number. Everton are doing pretty well. Fulham should be happy with a mid-table finish. But there is not one club that has excelled.
Liverpool are 28 points behind, having played a game more. Then you look at United's main challengers and City, Chelsea and Arsenal have all gone through traumas of varying degrees. Ferguson has a point when he says people have "foggy memories" (a win would have seen United go above the number of points the 1999 treble-winners accumulated) but it is also true that the standard of opposition has deteriorated. That, in turn, has helped to disguise the team's shortcomings.
Of course there is more right than wrong but Ferguson must be alarmed, for example, about the way his wide players have found it so difficult. Ashley Young has not turned out to be the player United had probably hoped but he has still been their best winger this season, almost by default. Nani has reverted to his exasperating worst, having been United's outstanding player two seasons ago, whereas Antonio Valencia has become a trier rather than the penetrative force of old. Valencia's link-up play with Wayne Rooney, picking out the striker with his right-wing deliveries, used to be a formidable weapon. There has barely been one occasion this season when it has been evident.
Against City, it was rare to see United's attacks fall down so frequently. Ferguson described Robin van Persie's performance as "fantastic" but United's manager often does that when a player is struggling. It's about trying to manipulate the headlines, protecting his own, keeping the focus off that player. On this occasion, however, the diversion technique fooled nobody. Van Persie's form is replicating what happened to David Silva last season – outstanding for the first two-thirds and then losing his way from February onwards. It cost Silva the player-of-the-year awards and might have the same consequence for Van Persie. He has, however, still contributed richly and will probably relish the fact that the coronation could come when United play at Arsenal, his former club, on 28 April.
As for City, the win should go a long way to lifting their mood ahead of Sunday's FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea. Mancini was emboldened enough to say that City would take the title straight back from United next season. He, too, was perhaps guilty of premature statements. Yet it is fair to assume they will certainly make a better fist of it – and those "Champ20ns" scarves should probably remain in the drawer for a few weeks yet.