MANCHESTER: Manchester United’s remarkable comeback from 2-0 down at half-time to beat City 3-2 in front of the Premier leaders’ own fans would have been enough to add to the canon of historic derbies even without the context.
But City had lost only once all season in a league they had dominated by playing some of the finest football by an English club in a decade, needed victory to secure the title with six games to play and were inthe middle of a thrilling battle with Liverpool for a place in the Champions League semi-finals.
City seized early command with goals from skipper Vincent Kompany in the 25th minute and Ilkay Gundogan five minutes later. They were so dominant they might have scored three or four more goals but for poor finishing, notably by 16-goal Raheem Sterling. United were awful. They defended more like a team second from bottom of the table than second from the top.
In addition, the match had been preceded by a bizarre claim from City manager Pep Guardiola that in January he had been offered United’s Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan by Mino Raiola, a claim the players’ agent denied.
The reputation which United manager Jose Mourinho had built over the years at Porto, Chelsea, Internazionale and Real Madrid was collapsing as the teams went in at halftime. That was when Mourinho told his players they had 45 minutes to save their careers and not leave themselves to be portrayed as “clowns”.
Pogba led the charge with two quickfire goals before central defender Chris Smalling then put United ahead with a fine strike in the 69th minute. Guardiola brought Kevin de Bruyne and Sergio Aguero off the substitutes’ bench but all in vain. For the first time in his career Guardiola had seen one of his teams concede three or more goals in two successive matches, following defeat at Liverpool the previous Wednesday.
Mourinho, whose last league victory over Guardiola was during their Real Madrid/Barcelona days in 2012, said: “We are not as bad as people think we are and I’m not as bad a manager as people think I am. That’s what we are trying to prove: we’re the second-best team in the country.
“I’m happy for the fans. I know for them it is important to beat direct rivals. For them it is a nice feeling. My objective was not to spoil City’s celebration – they will celebrate sooner or later – but just to get the points.”
Guardiola thought defeat simply illustrated how impressive his team had been throughout the season. He said: “It’s hard for the fans but maybe, if we are able to win the Premier League, then people will understand how difficult it is. People have said since November, December: ‘The Premier League is done’. But it is tough to keep going every single weekend, to stay focused.”
Dennis Tueart, once a City star and a former director, was not so sanguine. He was scathing in criticism of Guardiola’s team.
Tueart, in a BBC Radio interview, said: “When we implode we implode in big way. Our defending at set pieces was catastrophic. Sterling could have had a hat-trick before half-time and Sane’s not been up to the mark in the last couple of games.
“Second division Bristol City, in the League Cup back in January, set down a blueprint for how to compete with us by putting in loads of energy and pressing high up the pitch. Liverpool have done that twice to us this season. People have been talking about City as a great team but to be a great team you have to win at the highest level and this team haven’t done that yet.
“There was always a fear, when Pep was at Bayern and they reached the Champions League semi-finals three times, that his methods meant his players were running out of steam towards the end of a season. That’s what seems to be happening again.”
City may have to wait another fortnight now to secure the title. They can celebrate if they beat Tottenham at Wembley next Saturday – but only if United fail against relegation-bound West Bromwich.