“The City fans are shouting ‘Olé’ and they’re embarrassing us. Are we going to stand for that? Remember your responsibilities to the fans and the badge. Show some pride and fight for each other.”
Ashley Young’s words at half-time proved to be the trigger needed for Manchester United to complete one of the great comebacks of the Premier League era.
2-0 down at half-time to Manchester City and playing like a punch-drunk boxer, United’s players reconvened in the away dressing room at the Etihad Stadium, dejected and likely feeling fortunate that the scoreline read like it did; if Raheem Sterling could finish, the score deficit would’ve been 4 and not 2.
Either way, Manchester City were cruising. Needing a win to claim the Premier League title at the earliest opportunity ever, they were toying with United. As Young acknowledged at half-time, the home crowd were revelling.
What better setting to lift aloft the Premier League title than at home, on derby day, against the Club who’s shadow you’ve lived in for fifty years?
Alas, in typical City fashion, it wasn’t to work out the way they had intended.
Within 10 mins of the second half restarting, the sides were level at 2-2. Paul Pogba, a man poked and prodded by fans and media alike all year, produced the kind of midfield performance that Roy Keane would’ve been proud of.
The Frenchman acknowledged at half-time that he needed to unleash the shackles and take the game by the scruff of its neck. And boy did he do just that.
First, he latched onto a simply brilliant chested assist by Ander Herrera to finish past Ederson into the top right hand corner, celebrating rather mutedly; he was simply interested only in getting back into his half and restarting the game.
Just over ninety seconds later, he did it again. Alexis Sanchez, another man chastised unfairly since joining the Old Trafford club in January, showed the City fans exactly what he was missing. Jinking inside, he spotted a late midfield run by Pogba before curling in a straight ball straight onto his head. Pogba redirected the ball past Ederson, to the utter joy of the travelling away fans behind the goal.
Again, Pogba pumped the air with his fist, curled his hand around his ear to the silenced fans and picked up the ball to take it back to the centre circle.
More was to come. By this point, City were stunned. In the space of 14 first half minutes, the side had gone from champions-elect to being humbled by their neighbours.
With 20 minutes to go, Chris Smalling had sealed all three points with a header from an Alexis Sanchez free kick.
The final 15 minutes were marred by tactical fouls on United’s side, and petulant, tantrum-like fouls by City. Say what you want about the beautiful football Pep Guardiola’s sides play, and they do, but they often turn into horrible losers when things don’t go their way.
Ashely Young was lucky to avoid a penalty and a potential red for a mistimed challenge on Sergio Aguero in the dying minutes, an incident overlooked by the referee.
The full-time whistle was met with hysteria by the away end and United players, and complete dismay and tears by the City fans.
In the grand scheme of things, this game won’t impact the destination of the title this year. But it has delayed City’s trophy parade No longer can they be the earliest league champions in history. If the football follows the script this weekend, the end of April represents the earliest chance City can hold aloft the trophy: they need United to lose one more game and it is unlikely Mourinho’s men will suffer a loss at home to Watford this weekend.
Liverpool’s result and United’s comeback win yesterday highlights one thing: this Manchester City side are not the greatest team these shores have ever witnessed.
In two months, Guardiola’s men have gone from pursuing the quadruple to exiting the FA Cup to a League One side, crashing out of the Champions League to Liverpool, and losing at home to their hated rivals. Draw against Spurs this weekend and the opportunity to become the first Premier League side to clock 100 points will disappear.
Can you imagine Arsenal’s 2004 Invincibles, United’s treble-winning 1999 side or Jose Mourinho’s maiden Chelsea side of 2005/6 succumbing to Liverpool and United the way City have done over the past week? No, me neither.