English football’s most consuming rivalry is a package of fine individual talent, cathedral-like stadiums and tribal passions that have made Manchester the capital city of the Premier League.
But the volcanic end to this derby confirmed an open secret. The Mancunian feud is in danger of veering out of control.
Let us not be hypocritical. These sulphurous encounters light up dull Sundays. They make national events of the biggest Premier League encounters. Neutrals flock to the TV glow to see matches settled by illustrious players. The evening talk is fuelled by disputes and controversies. We marvel at the rolling drama of the English game and wait twitchily for the next instalment.
Across Manchester and beyond, though, plenty of people feel a sinister edge has attached itself to the league-topping saga of red v sky blue. Not all of them are in the police. The first intimation of it was perhaps the gang of ballaclaved ‘lobbyists’ who turned up outside Wayne Rooney’s house two years ago and warned him not to sign for Manchester City. Fans of both teams now feel they run the gauntlet. A lop-sided rivalry is now a fearsome, multi-billion pound head-to-head between two empires.
An arrest for an alleged racial offence, a pitch invasion and a cut eye for Rio Ferdinand from a projectile preceded a marathon of finger jabbing from players and staff on both sides. City had argued like a sack of ferrets all game and by the end their manager, Roberto Mancini, could look back on heated exchanges with Yaya Touré, Carlos Tévez and Mario Balotelli, whose career has descended into parody.
Ferdinand was left with blood squirting from a gash above his left eye. In the same manic passage a fan staggered on to the pitch and had to be stopped by the City goalkeeper, Joe Hart, from confronting Ferdinand. Another was dragged by police past the back of the dug-outs.
All roads lead to Manchester again in this title race and there are six more months of this to come. It could go on for years. Apart from cancelling all leave and working with the protagonists to lower the temperature on match day, the police will hope not too many more derbies are settled by free-kicks in added time from a player who was chased by both clubs in the summer and asserted his right to join United.
Robin van Persie has done more than attack the goal-difference advantage that brought City their first league title for 44-years in May. He has shifted the psychological balance. City have match winners too, but none is currently a straightforward case. Sergio Agüero had an off-day here, Edin Dzeko has been used as an impact sub, Tévez has seemed subdued in several games and Balotelli is a mystery trapped inside an enigma.
Picked for the big game ahead of Tévez, after another stop-start season, Balotelli was hooked after 51 minutes and stomped down the tunnel. Not for the first time, a cabaret from Super Mario set the melodrama in motion. His departure gave the contest a huge jolt. Yaya Touré and Pablo Zabaleta scored to bring the game level as both sides counter-attacked at breakneck pace and the referee, Martin Atkinson, began to be overwhelmed by the speed and intensity of events.
The fates of these two clubs are so entwined these days.
Van Persie could have gone to City but signed for United. Tévez, who was at Old Trafford, left the wall inexplicably as Van Persie let rip. Jumping out of the way of the shot was Samir Nasri, who was on his way to United two summers ago before changing his mind and diverting to City.
Finally, United’s first two goals came from Rooney, who was tempted by City’s largesse and issued a statement questioning United’s “ambition” before the balaclavas appeared outside his house and a conference call with the Glazer family (and subsequent pay-rise) altered his thinking.
Mancini’s constant berating of his players made it easier to understand why a few are said to be fed up with his aggressive style. No other Premier League manager argues so much with his players. The decision to start with Balotelli backfired and there was no logical basis for replacing the injured Vincent Kompany with Kolo Touré while Joleon Lescott sat on the bench.
City’s proud home record was almost kept intact by a second-half flourish of determined attacking play. United will not think of them as down and out. If City could come from eight points behind in April to win the title, they are hardly dead at six points behind in December. Yet the vibes between Mancini and some of his players are not good. In the first half of last season City were often spectacular. Up to this Christmas they have yet to reach those heights and finished bottom of their Champions League group.
United were not about to miss an opportunity to nail City for the scenes at the end. “It’s unfortunate that a City fan runs on and coins are thrown. That shouldn’t happen. The same thing happened at Chelsea, which was masked by all the other things. We could have done without that,” Sir Alex Ferguson said, thus skewering two rivals for the price of one.
“As for today, I’m going to dismiss it from my mind because it was such a good game. You couldn’t take your eyes off it today, it was so engrossing. It tells you about the quality of the Premier League. It’s such a great league.”
For entertainment and tension, you could not ask for more. Van Persie’s late winner was a riposte to City for winning the title with almost the last kick of 2011-2012. But you can feel this great duel teetering on the edge of nasty civil strife.