Among the characteristics of the Ferguson years was a consistent demonstration of that adage that you play the game, not the occasion. Here, the bulk of the team did exactly that, matching city for long periods and almost doing enough late on to grab a share of the points in unlikely circumstnaces.. However, the two needless yellow cards that Chris Smalling picked up, which surely have to be put down to an over-zealousness brought on by derby day excitement, proved crucial and the Reds walked away from the Etihad empty-handed.
Although United dominated the early possession, city came to life in the twentieth minute and forced De Gea to make two excellent saves from Aguero, the first to deny his shot after brilliant control of a high ball, the second moments later when he pushed away a shot from the Argentinian after the home team had opened up the Reds’ defence. United’s best opportunity had come when a lengthy passing movement ended with Januzaj shooting tamely wide.
Aside from those clear-cut chances, it was all very even until Chris Smalling’s rash tackle brought him that second yellow card. Smalling had picked up a needless booking earlier in the half for waving his foot in front of Joe Hart as he made a clearance. His two reckless and entirely avoidable offences inevitably made an already difficult task for the Reds even harder; Januzaj made way so that Carrick, making his first appearance of the season, could come on to fill in as a central defender and United lost what had been an important feature of our play, the two wide players up to that point having till then stifled advances up the flanks from city’s two full backs.
In truth, it could have got worse before half-time: Fellaini had already got the benefit of the doubt for a challenge in the box on Ageuro and were certainly fortunate just before half time when Rojo appeared to impede Yaya Toure in the box. Had the latter decision been given, it would almost certainly have seen United down to nine men. Not that United enjoyed good fortune in all areas. If Smalling’s suspension added another name to the list of unavailable defenders next Saturday, the sight of Rojo being stretchered off the pitch added a further cruel blow from fate to the ongoing farce that is United’s injury record at the back this season. McNair, himself returning after an enforced absence, came on to join Carrick at the back as city strove to make the extra man count..
It was no surprise when they took the lead and similarly no surprise about the source. Clichy, liberated to go forward more often in Januzaj’s absence, cut back from the by-line to find Aguero, whose clinical finish found the roof of the net. De Gea saved well again from Jovetic soon afterwards and Navas might have doubled city’s lead when he cut in from the right and shot against the post. Although Van Persie forced a save from Hart, it seemed at that stage that damage limitation was the best United could hope for.
Despite another disappointing day, however, this is a Reds team with renewed spirit these days. Rather than settling for the avoidance of embarrassment, they took advantage of city taking their foot off the pedal, went full out for an equaliser and missed two excellence chances. First, Rooney’s terrific run down the middle ended with him not getting his shot in: the ball fell to Di Maria, but Hart parried his shot. Fellaini then passed up an even better opportunity when his free header went tamely wide of the far post. All city had to show for those late stages were a couple of Yaya Toure efforts that went wide of the target as the Reds finished the game strongly.
Sadly, it wasn’t enough. An increasingly nervy city held out and came away with the three points. While a defeat at the Etihad inevitably feels terrible for any United fan, there will be sizeable crumbs of comfort taken from the performance, which once again showed the kind of courage and adversity displayed against Chelsea last Sunday. There was, however, no last minute reprieve on this occasion: instead, knowing we were at least as good as the current champions on the day leaves only a bitter taste in the mouth that we left ourselves in a position from which it was always going to be difficult to retrieve anything from the game.