|photo by jrandallc||via PhotoRee|
Fresh off a meeting with my Chief of HR, George Le Coq ("Sportif" to his friends), in which we spent most of the afternoon dealing with the aftermath of a messy "personnel" issue, I decided I needed a drink. Or rather, more than one. Not to bore you with details, but suffice it to say that a certain farlieonfootie correspondent whose name rhymes with "Red" was involved in multiple activities with a junior office assistant that would make even the jaded Wayne Rooney and Peter Crouch blush. The joys of running a far-flung and many-peopled media empire seemed faraway this afternoon.
So it was off to the pub that I headed, and the Fox and Hounds in particular where I sought refuge from the world. Amidst the chaos and carnage back at the home office I almost forgot that today was D-day -- Derby day, that is, Manchester-style -- but what better place to find myself for a match I've been looking forward to for weeks than an English pub. It's the Reds vs. the Blues, and it doesn't get any better than this. Herewith my notes:
It's a United lineup that blends youth and experience, as well as the sick and the able, as the Red Devils are dealt a pre-derby wild card in the form on an influenza bug that plays havoc with Sir Alex's team selection. Surprisingly, Nani is judged fit to play despite reports to the contrary, and Vidic, Fletcher and Evra, too, have all recovered from the flu in time for the game. Sadly, Ryan Giggs is unavailable this evening, and misses a Manchester derby for the first time in 19 years.
Citteh counter with a lineup headed by the villain himself, none other than a certain "Carlitos" Tevez, a/k/a Ben Arnold (see your American history books for more), who is judged to have recovered from a nasty thigh bruise, and Mancini accompanies Tevez' selection with a daring midfield that includes no less than three defensive players -- showcasing nothing less than his typical ambition while playing at home. Why start
The Citizens, however, open the contest convincingly, keeping control of the ball and playing a virtually unchallenged game of keep away for the first eight minutes. United find it difficult to even gain a touch at the start, and when they do the ball is quickly surrendered back to City. It's the ninth minute of the game before the Red Devils manage a shot toward goal, and even then the attempt, by Nani, is promptly blocked.
It's a scrappy opening, in truth, both teams full of giveaways (I'm talking 'bout you, Ji-Sung Park), and botched shots (Hello, Carlos Tevez). Both sides are determined not to be caught out on defense, keeping plenty of men behind the ball and allowing only a select few to venture forward into the offensive zone. Back and forth we go time and again, although little threat to either goal emerges from the on-field action. Although the derby has been labeled a classic, up to this point in time it hasn't shown any signs of living up to its pre-game billing.
By the 20 minute mark, it's United growing in confidence, in the form of Evra bobbing and weaving goalward like a purposeful drunk. The French defender, who has only recently picked himself up off the pitch after a nasty knock to the ankle, puts the ball at last onto his weaker right foot, and the shot, when it comes, is straight at City 'keeper Hart.
United are showing more aggression now, and when Paul Scholes receives the ball at the top of the box and squares up as if to shoot, the small away crowd waits breathlessly for the coming laser. Unfortunately, Scholes himself is not on the same wavelength, and his effort at a dink-ish layoff to Berbatov rolls harmlessly out of bounds as the opportunity vanishes.
In the 35th minute it's City's turn to test Van der Sar, in the form of a free kick by Tevez that curls devilishly toward the upper right hand corner of the goal. The Dutch 'keeper is more than equal to the task, however, all 6 foot 6 inches laid out in full, and the shot is beaten wide.
Before the half can conclude, a telling interlude shown below offers insight into the heated passion that rules both sides, as Rafael and Captain Tevez go toe to toe before referee Chris Foy is able to separate them. It's good to see the sprightly Rafael giving as good as he's getting, but the sight must be at least a little worrisome to Sir Alex, and it has to be a warning signal of danger to come - this is the same Rafael who last year let his temper get the most of him versus a certain Bayern Munich team at Old Trafford.
As the second half begins it's United back to the front foot, slowly turning up the pressure on the home side, and beginning to boss the midfield as well as the game. The midfield is absolutely packed with players, as City seem to settle in for a defensive onslaught, but Michael Carrick's confident performance once again stands out. City's defensive posture can't be the most inspiring vision to the home fans, and I find myself wondering what the team on the field is thinking, as well.
Both Rafael and Evra are replaced due to injury in the second half, but a thoroughly composed Rio and towering Vida continue to hold down the fort in the middle Although there is little defensive prowess lost when Brown and O'Shea enter the game, the forward support for attack disappears with the substitutions.
It's Johnson on for Milner in the game's 73rd minute, and the change leads to a brief period of sustained pressure from the home side before United are able to chase the ball back into City's own half. Despite the introduction of Johnson's more direct play, there is precious little ambition being shown by the boys in blue, who seem more afraid of losing the game than trying to find a way to win it.
Sir Alex counters with a straight swap of Chicharito for Berba, and it's clear by this point that United will be well satisfied with a point on the day. Although the pitch has opened up considerably, the few legitimate attacking opportunities will be shown on a very brief highlight reel.
The last ten minutes are full of frantic City defending, as if they are willing themselves not to be beaten again at the last minute. It's with the final substitution, as Mancini brings on Adebayor for Tevez in the game's 93rd minute, that the real belief of Mancini is bared in full: parking the bus for the game's last minutes, and stalling to waste time at the end of a tied game played in front of a home crowd is not the move of a coach confident his side will be challenging for the title.
As the final whistle blows it's United nil, City nil - the two teams even on the scoreline but not on intent or ambition: United the only side on the day which played to win, and City's fear of losing on display for all to witness.
This is farlieonfootie for November 11.