The key worry heading into Saturday's game was how the side would cope with the absence of Carlos Tevez. Tevez, who has unquestionably been the heart of the side since his arrival at the club, is of course such an integral role in shaping how the City play and when he has been missing the side so often looks the worse for it.
The decision by Roberto Mancini therefore to deploy Yaya Toure in the role that he did was the crucial decision in ensuring victory. Toure's performance was such that he effectively covered to roles: not only that of an attacking midfielder but compensated for the presence and energy that Tevez brings to the attack. Aligned with the disciplined play of Mario Balotelli, the absence of Tevez was not felt and if anything the side looked the better for it with more pressure being exerted on United's pairing of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, who were pressured throughout.
It had not looked this way early on though. City started competently, content to pass the ball across defence and midfield but failing to create or test United's defence. Perhaps sensing this reticence, United began to step up the play. Afforded time and space, they were able to spread the ball wide and get at City's back line and their pressure paid off with two chances that fell to Berbatov that, if converted, would have likely changed the pattern of the game.
Although the first should have been converted, a great deal of credit must go to Joe Hart who stood tall and got a strong hand to the shot to turn the ball wide. Minutes later however, Berbatov could not be absolved from any blame as he managed to put the ball over the bar from all of two yards. Having had such a reprieve City began to get back into the game, finishing the half the stronger of the two and could have led at the half had Joleon Lescott not blazed over when presented with a good scoring opportunity.
Level at the half then, a fair scoreline on reflection but with United possessing a far stronger record in the second-half of games, City faced the tougher task. Post-match, Nigel de Jong spoke of ‘a row' at half-time and whatever was said the side came out and started fast, hitting United before they had got back in their stride. The goal came about as a result of some fortune with some sloppy play from Michael Carrick, but there was still plenty to do as Yaya Toure brushed aside Vidic and slotted under Edwin van der Sar.
Disharmony in the squad has been an often referred to discussion point this season but the celebrations following the goal very much suggested otherwise.
Playing with a lead, City are so often a different side and despite the occasion and the magnitude of what was at stake the performance over the final 40 minutes or so was one that has been witnessed on many occasions this season. Comfortable in possession, using the attacking threats in the side to create opportunities and stifling the opposition were very much features of City's play as the game wore on. Hart's smart tip over from Nani's free-kick aside, United rarely threatened. Both Berbatov and Antonio Valencia - expected to be key players in United's attack - were neutered and ultimately withdrawn. Without Rooney, Hernandez does not look the same player and once Scholes's frustrations had boiled over their most potent creative threat was gone.
There were a number of excellent performances on the day, although the two expected key threats - David Silva and Adam Johnson - largely underperformed. The full-back pairing of Pablo Zabaleta and Aleskandar Kolarov more than matched United's wide threat, whilst Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott nullified Berbatov. Special mention too must be made of Nigel de Jong. His absence at Anfield was stark and since his return from injury a month or so ago he has elevated his game from an offensive standpoint to go alongside the undoubted defensive qualities he possesses.
A deserved win then and an important psychologically as (as I wrote in the preview) City have failed to step up for the most part this season when presented with opportunity to kick on.
Vincent Kompany spoke post-game about fostering a winning mentality and this win will be important for that both in the short and long-term. Although the result is therefore extremely important it should be remembered that it is only the foundation that has been put in place; the side has to use this to now go on and lift both the FA Cup and assure themselves of a top 4 spot.
Expectations were high this season but in going on to achieve that would surely exceed the hopes and ambitions at the outset this season.