Any professional soccer player who doesn’t want to take on Manchester United should change jobs. United manager Alex Ferguson would surely say the same to any player of his who didn’t relish the challenge of being part of the team that everyone wants, or should want, to beat.
So, ignore any suggestion that the Manchester derby Monday night didn’t really matter, that it was essentially a meaningless match at the tail end of a strangely anti-climactic Premier League season.
Any match involving United always matters, or should, because it’s the biggest fish in English soccer and the most fun to land.
The importance is double when United’s opponent is Manchester City, or even triple now that City is a genuine threat to United’s Premier League hegemony. The players in red and those in blue demonstrated that by going at each other like hammer and tongs at Old Trafford.
Contrary to expectations at the start of the season, this game proved not to be a Premier League title-decider. City’s 2-1 win almost certainly won’t stop United from being crowned champion in a few weeks.
Still, the passion expended by both sides made these among the most entertaining and frenetic 90 minutes of 2012-13. They also gave interesting pointers for 2013-14.
For starters, the United fans who held a placard reading “Our players make history, your players make money” are being short-sighted, and not only because United’s players make plenty of money, too.
Of course, the long underachieving blue half of Manchester would never have been able to lure such talents as Yaya Toure, David Silva, Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero if not for the sudden wealth that came with the Abu Dhabi takeover of City in 2008, which its fans celebrated by driving around its stadium, honking car horns.
This is no mere collection of mercenaries. Tevez didn’t scamper around like a gerbil on amphetamines for 92 minutes against United just for a bag of cash. It wasn’t only money that prompted Aguero to slalom through the United defense and score the winner in the 78th minute. Staying on his feet with Phil Jones breathing all over him and shooting from a rapidly closing angle past David De Gea, Aguero showed he should be among the league’s top scorers next season if fit.
From the commitment shown by manager Roberto Mancini’s players, from their grins and celebrations after the win, this was clearly about pride, not money. Although City trails United by 12 points, it showed the gap is deceptive and isn’t an accurate reflection of their relative strengths.
“A derby is always a special game for us and to be able to win is massive,” City captain Vincent Kompany said. “I do believe the way we finish this season will have an impact on how we do next season. This is a good win to have under our belt and we will take it into the next season.”
City, as Mancini suggested before this match, will need to strengthen its squad again this summer, just as United did last summer with the addition of striker Robin van Persie. Perhaps add another striker to produce the 20 or so goals City has been missing this season and a zippy wide player or two who could give City more attacking options.
Still, even as is, City’s squad remains impressive. If its existing players consistently demonstrate as much purpose, intensity and team spirit as they did against United, then next season’s title race will again be between these two neighbors. That assumes, of course, that Chelsea is bringing in yet another manager and that Arsenal remains wedded to underachievement. And it also depends on City owner Sheik Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan having more sense than Chelsea billionaire Roman Abramovich and not sacking Mancini in a fit of silly impatience at the end of this season.
After the very public dispute with Tevez last season over the forward’s apparent refusal to warm up during a Champions League loss to Bayern Munich, Mancini’s man-management has again been questionable at times this season. Defender Micah Richards notably suggested that players weren’t comfortable with Mancini’s tactical switches in the Champions League. The Italian manager also was photographed in a training-ground tussle with high-maintenance striker Mario Balotelli, who then left in January and promptly started putting away goals for AC Milan and for Italy.
Still, Mancini isn’t doing too badly. After the 6-1 trouncing of United last season and the 2-1 victory on Monday, City has now won back-to-back league fixtures at Old Trafford for the first time since 1972. Having won the FA Cup with Mancini in 2011, the club’s first silverware in 35 years, City could win it again this year. It plays Chelsea in the semifinal Sunday.
Only Ferguson and Jose Mourinho at Chelsea have successfully defended a Premier League title. It was always a big ask to expect Mancini would do that this year, too.
But City will be back next season, still capable and, most important, still wanting to beat the great Manchester United. And that, in soccer, is how things should be.