It was never likely that there would be a repeat of the emphatic 6-1 last year, but City flexed their muscles, brought out their A game and were too strong for a largely reactive and surprisingly subdued United side. The title is won, with United’s day in the sun not too far around the corner, but this was a night for the Blue half of Manchester to shine. The performance reaffirmed Joe Hart’s words in the prelude that City are not a flash in the pan and won't be going anywhere anytime soon.
This was a victory to stir the passions and spark the memories of last season’s campaign and was sensationally secured as Aguero danced across the defensive backline, skidding past numerous challenges before exploding a shot into the roof of David De Gea’s goal. It was a strike fit to win any match and another tantalising demonstration of the brilliance that lies in the Argentines boots. Any victory at Old Trafford requires moments of such quality as equally as it calls for organisation, grit and the ability to play without inhibition. City had it all in spades. Gareth Barry was everywhere in midfield as Yaya played the responsible holder role and James Milner gave Patrice Evra as difficult an evening as he will have in the Premier League.
Tactically, Mancini played his cards right. Returning from injury and with Sunday’s Semi-Final on the horizon, Sergio Aguero was deemed only fit enough for the bench, which meant that a returning Carlos Tevez – always so pumped up when competing against United - would be required to put in some hard graft on his own up front. David Silva and Samir Nasri – finally demonstrating some form, perhaps not coincidentally after his stinging rebuke from Mancini – were to provide the support. Taking a glimpse at the hosts’ team sheet, with derby veteran Ryan Giggs lining up alongside Michael Carrick in midfield, one felt pre-game that City had the opportunity to dominate and overwhelm in the centre of the park. And so it proved for long spells of the match. Tevez was as industrious as ever operating in the ‘false 9’ role as perfected by Lionel Messi at Barcelona, perhaps offering a glimpse – if rumour is to be believed - of how City plan to operate next season? The benefits of the system where evident in the first half as following a breathless opening more akin to basketball than football, City were able to dominate the ball and find space for Nasri, Silva, Milner and even Barry as Tevez dropped deep. The only concern as the sides withdrew for the break – aside from a 2 vs 1 counter attack that Wellbeck failed to exploit - was that the visitors had failed to take advantage of their possessional dominance, an oft repeated statement throughout the campaign.
After a succession of corners pinned City back at the start of the 2nd period, the visitors broke and scored with their first major attack. Barry robbed Giggs high up the field on the left and fed Samir Nasri, pleasingly effective in central areas throughout, who withheld the challenge of red shirts around him and teed up James Milner to drill the ball past David De Gea via a slight deflection. The deadlock was broken. Repeating a stat from Skysports pre-game, when scoring first both sides have been unbeaten this season, so the breakthrough goal was always likely to be crucial. As it transpired, the lead was vanquished only a matter of minutes later. In a position not dissimilar to that which resulted in the winning goal at the Etihad, Robin Van Persie arched in a free kick, Joe Hart – perhaps conscious of being beaten at his near post – was caught under the flight of the ball and as Phil Jones attempted to head into the unguarded net, the ball ricocheted off his shoulder, into Vincent Kompany and into the goal. All square.
And so Mancini’s response to a spell of domination from the home side was to introduce El Kun, whose season and consistency of performance has been punctuated by injury this campaign to the detriment of City’s ‘goals for’ column. With 20 minutes to go his entrance pepped the visitors who re-asserted their dominance and struck the winner in such thrilling fashion. Upon the final whistle, with minor threat to the lead in the closing stages, one team left the Old Trafford turf having played with the authority of champions. As they did it was hard not to reflect on the performance and lament on what could have been a much stronger title defence this season. That said, there was comfort from this demonstration that City will be back next year. The only negative from a hugely satisfying evening was the loss of David Silva with what appeared to be a hamstring injury. He must be a doubt for the Semi-Final clash against Chelsea on Sunday. There was once a time when any encounter against United was by default the biggest game of City’s season, as it happens, this year that is not the case. Just don’t try telling me that this didn’t matter.
Man of the Match: Gareth Barry