The pre-game headlines may have screamed Paul Scholes' name, but it was Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck who made all the difference yesterday, as United edged past Manchester City, 3-2, to advance to the fourth round of the FA Cup. The Reds ended City's unbeaten streak at The Etihad in a game that was the tale of two halves: United at their attacking best before the interval, aided by an early sending off, and at their shaky defensive worst in the final 45, allowing City nearly all the way back into a game that will go down as one of the more remarkable in the long history of this derby. Our match report ensues:
United are under pressure from the get go, as City seek an early advantage to accommodate the screaming throngs at Eastlands. The Red half of Manchester is packed into the defensive end for the game' first 9 minutes, as Sergio Aguero and James Milner run the show. It's United, though, who are first on the board today, as Wayne Rooney caps the Reds' inaugural attack with a brilliant header off Antonio Valencia's cross, beating City's backup 'keeper Costel Pantilimon to bang it off the underside of the crossbar for a shock 1-nil lead. Several minutes later and red is prominent again, as it's the color of the card that's waved in the direction of City stalwart Vincent Kompany by referee Chris Foy, for the Belgian's two-footed tackle on Luis Nani. The announcers may complain, but if Nani were hurt the very same voices would be calling for Kompany's head: it's a rash, two-footed, studs up challenge, and the fact that the Portuguese winger pops straight back up is fortunate for all involved. And if the Blues were in trouble before, they're in desperate shape now, down both a goal and a man. Almost as if to counter that notion, though, Sergio Aguero nearly ties the contest up after United turn the ball over cheaply in midfield; the preferred Lindegaard is up to the task, though, as he uses every inch of his 6 foot 4 inch frame to deny the Spaniard. The frantic pace of the early action settles down a bit -- it has to -- as both sides adjust to the game's new reality. Its the Citizens who appear to have the man advantage, still pressing forward in attack, evidently determining that the best defense on the day is a good offense. Once again, though, it's the Reds capitalizing, as Nani sets up Evra with some fancy footwork, and when the Frenchman's cross is initially tipped into the air by Danny Welbeck, its the local boy who recovers in time to knock his own rebound -- tipped higher into the air by City's Samir Nasri -- into the back of the net for a stunning two goal advantage.
When referee Foy points to the spot, it's definitely going the the Reds' way on the afternoon; it's a clear penalty, Danny Welbeck scissored down, with Rooney stepping forward to collect the reward. Although Pantilimon denies Wazza's initial effort, the disappointment lasts only for the blink of an eye, as the rebound falls perfectly for the Englishman to nod it home for a three goal advantage.
City are reeling, and United seek to press the psychological advantage over their closest rivals. About the only thing that hasn't gone United's way in the first half is when Welbeck can't quite get his toe onto a ball skittering through the box just prior to the interval. Its an unbelievable half of football, with United seemingly well on their way to an on-pitch exorcism of the 6-1 thrashing handed down by City earlier this season. At some point during the break, though, the teams seem to have exchanged scripts for the half-time talks, as it's City that comes out of the locker room with a full head of steam. Mancini changes his team's shape to set up with a back three, and once again they set out on attack -- a defensive tag certainly can't be pinned on the blues today. And no sooner has the second half begun than it's Micah Richards on a rampaging run, stopped only when he's dragged down by Patrice Evra near the top of the 18 yard box, and it's Alexander Kolarov with a splendid free kick to pull back an early goal. Paul Scholes -- yes, that Paul Scholes -- warms up on the sideline as the rain continues to belt down on players and participants alike. United may have the whip hand in the words of television announcer Martin Tyler, but the second half is considerably shakier from the Champions. Sir Alex must be thinking that it's exactly the kind of circumstance that calls for a veteran head like Scholes', and it's at the contest's hour mark that the once and future legend is introduced for Nani. It's Giggs and Scholes in midfield for United, doubters be damned, and it's 1999 all over again, as Roy Keane and David Beckham watch on longingly from above. Although there's a clear penalty on Kolarov, Antonio Valencia beating him into the box before being hauled down, referee Foy is uninterested in the Ecuadorian international's protestations. It's at that point that the contest takes another wicked turn: Aguero follows up his own shot after an underhit pass from Scholes and a crucial spill by Lindegaard combine to lead to a City goal, and it's game on, 3-2, as the Citizens refuse to say die. It's heart-in-mouth time in one of the crazier games of the season, and United's back line once again has questions to answer after shipping two goals to a team with ten men. City are defending with a pack mentality, hunting the ball down and looking hungrier than the visitors. It's Scholes with a long range effort than swerves invitingly, but Pantilimon is up to the task. Anderson replaces Welbeck as Sir Alex looks to control midfield -- Carrick, Ando and Scholes all on at the same time, the sure-footed equivalent of the "all hands team" that is brought on to defend onside kicks in the NFL-- with a more defensive-minded substitution. Somewhat ridiculously, Scholes introduction is countered by City's own miraculous comeback, as Owen Hargreaves enters the fray for Samir Nasri. But it's Scholes with another giveaway that leads to City's next opportunity, as a City cross ricochets off Phil Jones' arm in the box. Once again, Chris Foy waves off appeals and United narrowly escape punishment.
Sergio Aguero puts on his diving boots in a blatant appeal for a foul as the action turns frantic: Lindegaard swiping at a ball in the air that bundles around the United penalty box before it's booted away by a relieved Jones. Richards tries to equal Rooney's bicycle kick heroics but it all comes to nothing in the end -- there's a reason Richards is a defender and not one of the world's most dangerous predators. It's a nervy ending, which is difficult to understand given the half-time advantage. The devastating psychological blow the Reds could have landed has been largely neutralized by City's valiant second half comeback. United attempt to play keep away to run down the clock, but it's City with the day's final attacks, crashing a free kick into Lindegaard's hands here, and goalkeeper Pantilimon heading a late corner wide there. United emerge 3-2 victors on the day, but I'm uncertain as to how good it feels at the end. There are very few smiles -- just grim acceptance and determination -- on either side as the players walk off the pitch, the Cup holders unhappy not to have equalized, and United with the slightly vacant look of men who've survived, but seen something they wish they hadn't.
One leaves the game wondering whether the storyline for today will be United's torrid first half, or City's fight back in the second. Only time will tell as the Reds march into the Cup's fourth round. This is Farlieonfootie for January 9.