Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The battle of Manchester begins

It was a special night. On a personal level, this first leg League Cup victory over the old enemy was one of the most memorable City matches I have witnessed.

Build up to a spectacle
The drama of last season’s UEFA Cup quarterfinal against Hamburg was a hard act to follow, but this match surpassed that in every way. In large part that was down to both the quality and, of course, the identity of our opponents.

From the second the lights were dimmed, bathing the stadium in light blue, it became one of those nights. United fans played their part, upping the ante by setting off a couple of red fire crackers in retort. City fans responded by belting out a rapturous ‘Blue Moon’ Already electric, the atmosphere thickened as the pressure flowed from the stands onto the pitch.

After all the debate, Ferguson emerged from the bowels of Eastlands with a strong side, arguably his strongest available. No Wellbeck, no Macheda, no Gibson, no Obertan, no De Laet. Rafael Da Silva was the nearest United got to fielding inexperience, and that young full back is certainly no shrinking violet when it comes to Premier League football.

United’s team selection revealed much. Most tellingly it spoke of Ferguson’s true perception of the City threat and of his desire to defeat it. The fierce rivalry that has simmered and burned across Manchester for decades remains as bright as ever, indeed perhaps as close to boiling point now as it ever has been.

Roberto Mancini deployed the best team available to him on the night. There were always going to be clear weaknesses throughout the team given the injury situation and international duties. No Bridge, no Lescott, no Toure, no Ireland, no Santa-Cruz, no Adebayor. Dedryck Boyata came into the defence to partner Kompany at centre back, Zabaleta moved to the left side of midfield whilst Bellamy was pushed up front with Tevez.

The battle is joined
For the first 30 minutes or so, we did not show up. It was no surprise when United opened the scoring on 16 minutes with a Giggs tap in.

The bad start may have been partly down to Mancini getting the initial formation wrong. Bellamy is at his best when marauding down the left flank and Zabaleta was certainly no match for the tenacious Rafael. But it is more likely that we started the game in the wrong frame of mind. We seemed far too nervous and gave the United midfield far too much time on the ball when we should have been pressing.

We were generally wasteful in possession, with Kompany, Wright-Phillips and Boyata being particularly slack. The post match reaction of certain elements in the media seemed to heap praise on the young Belgian, but I felt he was a little out of his depth. He obviously has a future and will benefit greatly from this derby experience, but his selection represented a massive gamble on the part of Mancini. Perhaps a better option would’ve been to place Zabaleta at right back, move Richards across to partner Kompany with Bellamy replacing Zabaleta on the left flank.

Hindsight is always a wonderful thing. The main positive we can take from analysing the manager’s performance is that yet again he changed things quickly, moving Bellamy to the left wing, dropping Zabaleta back into a defensive midfield position which gave us a physically small but highly mobile three pronged attack of Bellamy, Tevez and Wright-Phillips. This allowed us to get at what continues to be United's weakspot - the central defensive partnering of Wes Brown and Jonny Evans, a weakness that is cleverly masked by the potency of United's forward play, which takes pressure off the backline.

At any rate, it was from Bellamy’s left side that we gained a penalty just before half time, justifying Mancini’s realignment. In some sense the successful penalty strike from Tevez represented a sucker punch for United, who up until this point had seemed relatively comfortable.

The second half was much better from City. Every time a Red shirt came into possession he was quickly pressed, none more so than by the magnificent Carlos Tevez. In the 65th minute, the Argentinean slightly rose to head Kompany’s hooked cross past Van Der Sar to give City a 2-1 lead. It was nothing more than the Blues leader striker deserved. His goals apart, Tevez’s contribution was that much more impossible to ignore because of his overall play. This above all remains the most important element of Tevez, not only because it helps the objectives of the team but because it sets the right message to the team that this is the level of work rate they should all be hitting.

It is the kind of message that should be specifically getting through to the likes of Robinho. In congratulating Tevez on his December Barclays Player of the Month award, Mancini’s programme notes could easily be interpreted as containing a veiled warning for the Brazilian:
“He [Tevez] is a player I have admired from a distance for many years, and it is a delight to work with him on a daily basis. His form speaks for itself, but his success has come about through hard work on the training ground allied to his outstanding talent. He gives everything he has for the team, and works just as hard without the ball as when he has it. That is something that I always look for in a player, but the bonus with Carlos is that he is such a threat in front of goal.”
The final quarter of the match
This may be hard to stomach for some readers, but there is no doubt that United are a slick and potent attacking machine, the best I have seen at Eastlands all season. The quality of their offensive play reminds me of an animal that senses blood. This was evident as the final minutes closed in. We were under siege with very little outlet, in fact the pattern of the game was reminiscent of the dying minutes at Old Trafford earlier in the season, when our failure to clear our lines and retain possession ultimately resulted in our late, late demise.

Once again, I commend Mancini. Boyata was rightly substituted just before the 70 minute mark, replaced with the more experienced Nedum Onuoha. Then came another defensive substitution on 84 minutes, with Sylvinho replacing the tired Wright-Phillips. I’ve heard a lot of criticism about these moves but I back the manager 100%. The alternative would’ve been to bring on more attack minded players to relieve the pressure, but I believe the likes of Robinho and Petrov would’ve been muscled out in this environment. Mancini well may have invited more pressure by bringing on extra defensive capacity, but we were in a much better position defending to the hilt rather than thinning out our defence by going for another goal.

After all, we must remember that this tie was always going to be a tight affair. And whilst City are an excellent counter attacking side, we must also remember that at this point in time United are better. Their brand of quick, precise one-touch football is based entirely on the mutual understanding of their forward players. This should be no surprise because Ferguson has had a great deal of time to engrain this philosophy into the club. All the more reason why bringing on an attack minded player and thinning the defence was the wrong way to go.

Looking towards the next leg
Whilst we take a slender lead into the next leg, it is nevertheless a lead. It may seem like a strange comment, but I feel more comfortable with a one goal lead rather than to be up two or three. The latter scenarios just seem to invite defensive collapse. Perhaps that attitude is being far too ‘typical City’ for anyone’s liking.

But now, as we stand on the cusp of a League Cup Final, attitude is the vital word. We may well be able to field a stronger side at Old Trafford if the recoveries of Wright-Phillips and Ireland go according to plan, but we also know that United are strong, and that United will come knocking.

In these situations it is belief that matters. And ultimately, it will be belief that dictates whether this City side can deliver itself, and its fans, onto the hallowed turf of Wembley.

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