With Sir Alex Ferguson and Roberto Mancini setting out their teams in variations of the 4-3-3 formation, it was always going to take either a lucky or a special goal to win the Saturday lunchtime clash at Old Trafford. In the end the packed crowd saw both, but it was Wayne Rooney’s sumptuous overhead volley that gave United the valuable three points, and, barring a miracle, ended City’s hopes of winning the Premier League title.
While there were few clear-cut chances in the game, it was nonetheless an intriguing battle between the league leaders and their “noisy neighbours”, as Ferguson contemptuously labelled them last season. City started brightly and should have been a goal up in four minutes, as neat build-up play allowed David Silva a golden chance to score, but the Spaniard could only poke wide of Edwin Van der Sar’s right-hand post. Silva did in fact score later on via Dzeko’s shot ricocheting into United’s net off of his back, and his link-up play was a constant threat throughout the game. Despite this, one can only feel that had Silva finished early on, City’s tight formation could have gone on to squeeze the life out of the game.
Much of the pre-match discussion concerned the absence of Rio Ferdinand, and how the youngster Chris Smalling would cope with the likes of Carlos Tevez and Edin Dzeko. The 21-year-old performed admirably alongside the ever-dependable Nemanja Vidic, and save for the fortunate goal courtesy of Silva’s back, it’s fair to say that United didn’t miss Ferdinand. Before the match, Ferguson compared the two, saying of Smalling: “He’s quick, he’s a good user and passer of the ball. He’s on similar lines to Rio.” Of course, having a defender of the capabilities of Vidic alongside him obviously helped, but the young Englishman looked more assured than Jonny Evans has done of late, and has surely cemented his place as reserve centre-back (at least). City’s Vincent Kompany also performed admirably, and kept Rooney quiet but for the crucial moment of the match.
It would be impossible to talk about the game without mentioning Rooney’s second-half stunner, of which Ferguson said: “I’ve never seen anything like it…in terms of execution, you will never see that.” Coincidentally, despite showing a willingness to chase the ball, Rooney’s overall game was again flat against City; his first touch was poor, and referee Andre Marriner had to warn him early on to calm himself down after a few rash lunges. Even his build-up play before the goal was off-colour, with a mishit pass fortunately finding Paul Scholes. However, the finish was simply stunning, with Rooney setting himself to volley Nani’s cross over his shoulder into the opposite top corner from 12 yards out.
United’s winger Nani continued his fine recent form with a cooly-taken goal and an assist for Rooney’s winner. The Portuguese now has 9 goals and 13 assists in the league this season, which is a great return considering his precarious position within the squad around 14 months ago; he is fast becoming United’s most important player, and the number seven shirt may be his reward for this season’s fine form.