Manchester City vs Manchester United @ The Etihad Stadium
As if it wasn’t obvious before Sunday’s match, the Manchester derby is currently the top footballing exhibition in the Premiership and one of the best in the world. After losing both league matches last season (including a 6-1 embarrassment at Old Trafford) , Manchester United were eager to turn the tables on their “noisy neighbors”, though it was always likely to be a difficult task at the Etihad Stadium.
As was chronicled last week, United have had a nasty habit of conceding first this season and in the opening 15 minutes, Manchester City controlled possession and looked likely to continue the trend. However, it was not to be, as in the first real attack of the match for the Red Devils, Wayne Rooney scored to put Manchester United in front in the 16th minute. Rooney would go on to add a second just 13 minutes later to put United in the driver’s seat.
The match changed early in the 2nd half, as Mancini brought off struggling striker Mario Balotelli for the highly influential Carlos Tevez (more on this a bit later). Despite the substitution, United thought they had extended their lead when Ashley Young tucked home a rebound off the woodwork from a van Persie shot, but the flag was raised for a very suspect offside decision. Less than a minute later, City pulled back one goal through Yaya Toure, and they would go on to add the equalizer in the 86th minute when Pablo Zabaleta’s shot somehow found a way past the forest of United legs in the penalty area.
Robin van Persie won the match for United in the 2nd minute of stoppage time with a deflected free kick off Samir Nasri’s outstretched leg on the edge of the wall in front of Joe Hart. The 3-2 defeat ended a 37 match home unbeaten run for the Citizens and was their first loss of the Premier League season. They now trail Manchester United by 6 points in the league after having their hopes of continuing to play in Europe this season dashed with a midweek loss to Borussia Dortmund in the final Champions League group stage match.
In light of these last two points, let’s examine whether Roberto Mancini deserves to be on the hot seat at Manchester City. Under normal circumstances, it would seem to be a no-brainer that Mancini has earned the benefit of the doubt from City fans and ownership, given he brought the club their first silverware in 35 years and their first English League title in over 40 years, but a few strange managerial decisions have left some fans wondering if he might be on his way out of Manchester.
One of the biggest criticisms of Mancini during his managerial career has been the inability to win a Champions League trophy, despite fantastic success in domestic leagues and domestic cups as manager of Inter Milan and Manchester City. He has had two extremely difficult groups to contend with during his two Champions League appearances with City, but after just missing out on a knockout stage spot last season, City were expected to build on that result this season. Instead, the Citizens are out of Europe altogether after finishing last in the “Group of Death”, with just 3 points from 6 matches. Mancini certainly isn’t all to blame, but he has come under serious criticism for continuing to trot out three in the back line despite overwhelming evidence that City are uncomfortable playing such a style. Indeed, starting with three in the back in the critical match against Real Madrid in match day 5 was a poor decision that didn’t survive the first half before he was forced to make a complete change in tactics just to stay in the match.
By all accounts, Mancini has done a decent job of controlling the fantastic number of egos in the Manchester City dressing room; however, his biggest failure (albeit with the notoriously difficult Tevez) came at a crucial moment during last year’s Champions League and was at least a contributing factor in City’s failure to advance to the knockout stages. He has also proven unable to rein in his combustible countryman, Mario Balotelli, (though to be fair, can anyone rein in Balotelli until Mario decides to mature as a player), with the evidence on display again in today’s match. Balotelli, who was a surprise inclusion from the start, drifted around the periphery of the match for 52 minutes before being replaced by Tevez and storming straight off into the dressing room without so much as a look at his manager. Obviously this isn’t the first time this has happened and it is a wonder Mancini continues to trust Balotelli in the biggest matches. Admittedly, the decision to bring on Tevez and the shock of him not starting from the off looked even more justified in hindsight as he clearly swung the match in City’s favor up until the last 2 minutes of stoppage time.
Taken alone, this might not seem like much reason to proclaim Mancini deserves his place on the hot seat, but the decision to start Balotelli is part of a startling trend of poor tactical decisions by Mancini, including the failed 3-5-2 experimentation in the Champions League and the continued use of Yaya Toure in a defensive role, when he has proved so devastating given the freedom to roam higher up the pitch.
In an age where the Champions League trophy is given the highest priority by all the big clubs and super-rich owners lack the patience to give their managers more than two or three chances before sending them packing, (looking at you Roman Abramovich,) City owner Sheik Mansour is fully justified in at least considering the prospect of replacing Mancini with one of the big names, read Pep Guardiola, currently out of a job.
Three other observations or thoughts from the match:
I’m not a Manchester City fan, but Pablo Zabaleta is one of my favorite players to watch in the Premier League. He is neither tactically nor technically outstanding, but he certainly belongs in City’s best XI because of his work rate and the passion he brings to the team. He was hard done by not to earn a point for City with his well taken equalizer late in the match.
The Premier League race is still wide open this season. Yes, Manchester United have a 6 point lead over City and 10 points over Chelsea, but less than half the season has been played. United conceded 2 more goals today to bring their total to 23 in 16 matches. Their offense will stutter at times during the next few months and unless they can clean up their defending, it will be enough to let one or both of City and Chelsea back into the title hunt.
The writer’s jinx got me today. After I profiled the weakness of the Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra back line last week, they kept a clean sheet today until Evans’ injury-enforced substitution just after half-time. City would go on to score twice after Smalling came on, though that also neatly coincided with the awful Balotelli being replaced by Tevez.