Manchester City last night completed a league double over their local rivals, but the implications for this season's title race and beyond far outweigh any neighbourly bragging rights.
Since Manchester United went eight points clear at the summit of the Barclays Premier League on 8 April, they have amassed just four points from four games—a stunning return for a team and club which prides itself on experience and a winning mentality. While the world claimed that City couldn't handle the expectations which come with leading the way at the top, United were now expected to cruise home for their 20th league title.
What we got was a complete role reversal. An argument could be made for complacency as the Reds succumbed to defeat at relegation-threatened Wigan, while it was sheer defensive suicide as they surrendered a 4-2 lead against Everton with just seven minutes remaining at Old Trafford.
City—boosted by the new-look strike partnership of Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez—swept aside West Brom, Norwich City and Wolverhampton Wanderers, scoring 12 goals and conceding one as they regained ground ahead of the Manchester derby.
A draw would have most likely been enough to seal the title for United as it would have left the Blues three points behind with only two games of the season remaining. As such, the Manchester United manager selected a team equipped to stifle, with the in-form Danny Welbeck and Antonio Valencia dropped to the bench as a more conservative United lined up at the Etihad.
City needed to win and continued with the front four of Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, Samir Nasri and David Silva while Yaya Toure and Gareth Barry impressively bossed the central midfield against a three of Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick and Park Ji-Sung.
In the end it took just the one goal to give victory to the Blues, but it was the manner of domination in both league games which will give fans hope for the future. United's defensive formation meant that the Reds struggled to penetrate a back-line which has conceded just 10 goals at the Etihad all season-ultimately failing to muster a single shot on Joe Hart's goal.
There has been a peculiar lack of criticism at the United capitulation since the reigning champions gained a heady advantage with just six games remaining, but it would be hard to place the blame for the derby defeat with anyone but the manager.
Whether the painful memories of the first derby of the season still stung, or the close comeback for City despite controversially playing out 80 minutes with just 10 men in January's FA Cup game weighed on Alex Ferguson's mind is only for him to know, but it is increasingly apparent that Roberto Mancini is gaining the upper hand in tactical battles between the two. For every action made there was an instant opposite reaction to nullify the threat.
When Danny Welbeck was finally introduced on the hour, Nigel de Jong took to the pitch to close down Wayne Rooney, meaning Vincent Kompany could still press forward against the strikers knowing there was a numerical advantage at the back and allowing Yaya Toure to push further up field and cause havoc with his lung-bursting runs. When Valencia and Young stretched the pitch for United, Micah Richards became a third centre-back, presenting Pablo Zabaleta the opportunity of additional defensive cover to join in the attacks.
Victory leaves the Blues within touching distance of the first league title of the ADUG regime and the comeback should give the blue half of Manchester confidence for the future. Long has the experience of Manchester United been championed—that much is undeniable after Alex Ferguson's talent for collecting trophies—but should City seal the championship from eight points behind with six games left to play, no longer could United's mentality be claimed to be superior.
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