Thursday, 28 January 2010

The terrible truth

It was always going to be a contest of epic proportions, and it didn’t fail to disappoint. The second installment of City's League Cup tie with United was another gem of a spectacle, cut from the same cloth as the first leg. Something tells me that it is a match that I should privileged to have been a part of. It’s certainly a night that I will both always remember and always want to forget.

Above all things, this result was a true measure of City’s current position. I’ve said in the past, that because of the volatile nature of Derbies, they are never good tools with which to measure progress. For the first leg, and for much of the second, this was a Derby contest, but after Carlos Tevez scored to make it 3-3 on aggregate, the tie took on a European-esque feel. It became more about concentration than passion, more about footballing savvy than fire.

And it was in this climate where United succeeded and City ultimately failed. The former has, after all, had a lot more practice when it comes to these high pressure moments.

The match itself
If we look at it as a game of football, it certainly wasn’t as disastrous as the result feels. Before the game Mancini would’ve taken 0-0 at half time, so in a sense City did the job in the first half. Of course, we could’ve played the first 45 minutes better. Once again I felt we gave United too much respect, too much time on the ball. They used the wide positions well and for once Nani looked like a dangerous prospect on the right. Perhaps this was more to do with the space he was afforded by Javier Garrido.

I gasped when I saw Dedryck Boyata’s name in the starting eleven. His selection was arguably an even bigger gamble than playing him in the first leg, but it certainly paid off for Mancini. For one so inexperienced, the young Belgian put in a good performance, making an unbelievable goal mouth clearance in the second half.

But he and his fellow defenders / defensive midfielders were neither exceptional nor flawless. If we take each of United’s goals, none are a reflection of the sublime attacking talent that Ferguson’s men possess. Instead they are an indictment of our own rear guard action.

Sadly, the Scholes and Carrick strikes were both as a result of a string of defensive mistakes. We couldn’t clear our lines quick enough and we paid the price. I don’t know how many bites of the cherry we were thinking of giving the oncoming Red shirts, but balls in the box against United have to be dealt with quickly, efficiently, at the first attempt, otherwise it’s a goal scoring opportunity. The first goal was vital in the sense that it opened up the game. The last person we wanted that ball to break to on the edge of the box was Paul Scholes.

Rooney’s winner was more of the same. How, in the 92nd minute, we can allow the Premiership’s most in form striker a free header in front of goal is beyond me.

The keys to City’s defeat
We showed flashes of what we can do going forward, but it was never enough. For me, the level of our attacking threat was always going to be one of the keys to this game. United’s weak spot is the centre of defence, and I always felt that if we got at this then we would be rewarded. Getting at United’s backline would’ve had the added advantage of taking the pressure of our own defence. This I think was the only way to victory.

But for great swathes of the game we were under pressure, forever chasing down the ball and standing off. And this was another key to our defeat: lack of possession. Any team would’ve tired in this environment. As with the 4-3 defeat earlier in the season, for the Blues it once again all came down to not having the ball, and struggling to find outlets to release the pressure once we did have the ball.

Underlying all of this was the difference in mentalities. Tevez’s goal came at a fantastic time. I must admit that at 2-0 down, I thought we were in danger of conceding a hatful. But that was not to be. City certainly did not go quietly, with the little Argentinean’s deft flick – again evidence of his sheer quality –completely changing the outlook of the game. Suddenly City were in the ascendancy. This was the key period of the game for me. If we’d have scored again in this window I feel we would’ve closed the game out.

But we didn’t score, and in not doing we allowed United to wrest back control of the game as it ran into injury time. Our mentality suddenly became one of retreat, one of battening down the hatches, one of desperation. This allowed United to enter a comfortable and familiar scenario – that of a team pushing for the winner amidst the dying embers of the game. Rooney’s winner came as much from our defensive suicide on the pitch as it did from our failure to win the mental battle that was taking place in those final minutes.

The truth hurts, but it will get better
I will never forget how the game ended and the sequence of events afterwards. We were made to wait in the ground until the United fans had filtered out. Of course, most Reds took the opportunity and baited the City fans, many of whom either stared out towards the Stretford End or down towards the floor. And then came the ordeal of walking back to the car, surrounded by buoyant Reds chanting songs about laughing at City. It was a nightmare-ish experience.

This was backed up by the fact, however hard it is to accept, at this moment in time we are just not quite good enough to match a team like United over two legs. United have that extra factor, the winning mentality that only comes from – yes you guessed it – winning. In the end, their winning experience told.

We are still building our winning experience. This will be small comfort to many City fans, but this defeat, as terrible as it feels, should be seen in perspective. Five years ago, could we really have hoped for a UEFA Cup quarter final birth, a League Cup semi final against United, and to be still knocking on the door of the top four by February? Of course not, but we should remember that these kinds of things are becoming a regular occurrence.

This is one of the worst defeats I have ever experienced, but it makes me all the more eager to put one over on the Reds the next time we meet, and the time after that, and the time after that.

Indeed, the rivalry is increasing, entering a new phase, and both sides know it. One only had to look at the celebrations of the United players, at the expressions on the faces of the United fans, to know how much this victory meant to them. The level of abuse being thrown across the stands was stark.

It may well be a scar for the Blues, but United fans should remember that this result – far from being the end - is part of a new beginning. City are not going to go away. To me, it represents an early skirmish of a wider war that is now opening up across Manchester.

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