Manchester United and Manchester City at long last resembled potential contenders for the English Premier League title on Sunday in match full of twists and turns which left the result in doubt right up to the final whistle.
United, in particular, threw off the shackles and the midfield “tippy tappy” possession football which had characterised many of their games so far this season.
After a settling-in period for the first 15 minutes or so, they really went for it with an enthralling display of dynamic wing play and direct counter attacking football for which they have become renowned over the years.
For 40 minutes or so in the middle of the match, City had no answer for United’s pace and movement.
It was heartening to see Ashley Young and Patrice Evra on the left and Antonio Valencia and Rafael de Silva on the right, ripping into the City defence and creating two gilt edged opportunities that the rejuvenated Wayne Rooney accepted with relish to put United, perhaps flatteringly at the time, 2-0 ahead.
City improved when the enigma that is Mario Balotelli was substituted for Carlos Tevez after 52 minutes of posing and posturing.
Despite Tevez’s added zest, United should have been 3-0 up on 59 minutes when Young’s strike, following a Robin Van Persie thunderbolt which rebounded to him off the crossbar, was wrongly ruled offside.
It is a measure of the drama that often seems to follow this derby match that City almost immediately pulled a goal back and then went on to equalise.
There seemed only one winner at this point. The momentum was with the champions, but then there’s always Van Persie and he provided the coup de grace for United with a beautifully placed (if slightly deflected) free kick which left the noisy neighbours no time to respond.
The disgraceful behaviour from a few moronic City fans which followed the winning goal is not worth too much further publicity. Needless to say, all parties have strongly condemned the behaviour of these idiots and, hopefully, stern justice will be meted out in due course.
So United move six points clear and the green shoots of recovery from their slightly indifferent form were plain to see.
The defensive frailty was still in evidence and, perhaps, both City goals were avoidable, but no blame should be attached to the central defensive pairing of Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans who looked assured and dominant for the majority of the match.
Here are five areas of United’s performance which should encourage Red’s fans:
1) Rooney supplied the missing link in his recent performances—goals. Scoring is a habit and now he has notched a couple in each of his last two league games, hopefully that habit has returned.
2) Young and Valencia, aided ably by Evra and Rafael, looked menacing and, on this form, will terrorise any defence they come up against.
Having two orthodox wingers helps to stretch the opposition and, as shown on Sunday, leaves space inside for midfielders and strikers to exploit.
Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley looked more comfortable with the extra space in midfield that this created and United, in general, looked far more effective as a unit.
This isn’t the City way and their lack of wide men allowed United’s full backs to venture forward on regular occasions.
3) David de Gea has always been a brilliant shot stopper as he showed in twice denying City from point blank range before being given no chance by Yaya Toure.
On Sunday, however, De Gea answered criticism of his ability to deal with high crosses by strongly punching clear on several occasions. He looked far more confident in this aspect of his game and all looks rosier for his future.
4) With regards to a game plan, the direct approach shown on Sunday is surely the way United fans want their team to play.
This is the Red’s style we have grown to know and love.
We support Man Utd not Barcelona and Sir Alex Ferguson should stick to what they do well even if, at times, it leaves them open to the counter attack.
5) Robin Van Persie. I hardly need to say more except that arguably he is proving to be Fergy’s best buy since, perhaps, a certain Frenchman became the darling of the Stretford End 10 years ago.
They still sing Eric Cantona’s name on the terraces today and who’s to say RVP won’t follow in his illustrious footsteps in years to come.
All in all then, a heartening performance from United, but the job, as we found out last year, is a long way from being completed.
A six point lead can disappear very quickly, as Chelsea will testify.
However, if Fergy’s boys can maintain and build on the momentum that has built up in this match, the prospects for the New Year look encouraging.