Monday, August 8, 2011

A Real Eye Opener

photo by Free-ersvia PhotoRee

"There's no such thing as a friendly against City." So tweeted Wayne Rooney just prior to kicking off the first Manchester derby since last April, as the two teams met Sunday afternoon to begin the 2011/2012 season in the Charity Shield at Wembley. And even though the final score won't count in the regular season results, make no mistake: both teams wanted victory in London yesterday, the second derby in a row outside the City of Manchester.

Sir Alex surprised with his starting selection, rewarding Danny Welbeck and Chris Smalling for their strong pre-season performances, while Michael Carrick and Anderson manned the engine room. Crucially, Wayne Rooney, who famously missed the last game between the two sides, started the action up front, while David De Gea opened in goal. 

United began clearly the better of the two sides, showing serious intent right from the opening whistle. The Reds were unlcuky not to open the scoring off an early corner, as the ball rattled around the goal box before being deflected out. City gradually came into the game, but worryingly for Roberto Mancini, so did Mario Balotelli's personality as the Italian malcontent squared up against Nemanja Vidic, and Referee Phil Dowd was forced to intercede.

Tempers continued to flare in the misnamed "friendly," as Edin Dzeko and Anderson were both shown yellow, and Micah Richards should have seen red from Referee Dowd for a shocking takedown of Ashley Young. United didn't lack for for first half scoring opportunities, repeatedly generating some slick offensive moves only to be denied at the last minute.

Yaya Toure became the third City player to enter the book as a Dowd struggled to maintain his hold on an increasingly ugly match. And while United missed chance after chance, City scored on virtually their first attack of the day, with Joleon Lescott outmuscling Rio Ferdinand to direct David Silva's curving swinger into the back of the net for a 1-nil City lead. If newboy De Gea hesitated ever so slightly on the first goal, City's joy turned to jubilation as Edin Dzeko blasted the ball past an uncertain Spanish 'keeper to truly make the score a comical 2-nil just before halftime. Questions will surely be asked of De Gea by both friend and foe alike after a shaky beginning to his United career, and the new kid will have to demonstrate his famous mental strength to keep his confidence from slipping.

Tom Cleverly, Johnny Evans and Phil Jones replaced Carrick, Vidic and Ferdinand to begin the second half, part of Sir Alex's bold statement regarding the strength of United's future.  But that future may have come sooner than people expected as Chris Smalling pulled one back for the visitors, hoofing in Ashley Young's swerving free kick to accomplish what no Red was able to in the first half. A few quick minutes later, and it was Rooney to Cleverly to Nani for a beautifully worked goal to equalize the scoreline and send the Red three-quarters (clearly more than half) of Manchester into a wild celebration. Just twelve minutes into the second half and United's class had come through loud and clear in an exquisite seven pass move, with Nani's chipped finish a priceless work of art and an early season contender for goal of the month.

Mancini introduced Adam Johnson for James Milner with 25 minutes left in an attempt to haul his sagging team back into a half in which they were decidedly on the back foot. When Sir Alex directed Rafael to replace Patrice Evra, the Frenchman looked reluctant to leave the action, although it's notable that United's left back did not "pull a Balotelli" and storm into the dressing room upon his departure. The switch left Rooney as United's oldest man standing, and reduced the average age of the men in Red to under 22, a fact that should give all United fans hope for the future.

Gael Clichy made his City debut as United conitnued to be the better team, despite the youth now on the pitch. Both teams threatened as the game wound down, with City finally gaining a bit of sustained pressure and threatening De Gea's goal for virtually the first time in the second half.

When Danny Welbeck was replaced by Dimitar Berbatov in the 88th minute, it became apparent that Sir Alex was trying to take advantage of United's clear edge in fitness and nick a last minute winner. Although it looked highly unlikely when City won a free kick in United's end on 93 minutes, when Rooney booted the ball out of the box the bouncing orb was wildly misplayed by both of City's central defenders, and Luis Nani was the fortunate benefactor of a good bounce -- the kind of bounce the Reds have grown accustomed to receiving, especially against their erstwhile rivals. All that's was left for Nani to do was round City 'keeper Joe Hart, which he did neatly before depositing the ball into the back of the net for yet another last minute winner against the Blues. City fans streamed out of Wembley disappointed, as Nani wagged his arms up and down and celebrated in style.

At full time it was United 3 - City 2, and the game was nowhere near as close as the scoreline indicated.  United played with verve, tempo and spirit, and the team's pre-season American journey seems to have paid off in ridiculous levels of fitness and a continuation of the famous never-say-die attitude.  By contrast, City's American journey must be viewed as a holiday, as the team never looked the better of the two sides yesterday, and Roberto Mancini must be headed back to the drawing board to figure out how to top his rivals -- again.

This is farlieonfootie for August 8.

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