And that, really, should be that. A 2-1 defeat in the Manchester derby leaves City 14 points behind Liverpool and, even though there is almost two-thirds of the season still to go, that is surely a decisive lead. Liverpool, having not won the league since 1990, will take nothing for granted. Leicester City would move to within eight points of the lead if it beats Aston Villa on Sunday, but it would take an extraordinary collapse for Jurgen Klopp’s side not to win the title from here.
City controlled possession for long periods and created numerous chances but, as so often this season, there was the sense of something missing, a lack of ruthlessness of edge in attacking areas, coupled with a worrying defensive fragility. The club may also face sanction after Fred was struck by a missile thrown from the crowd as he went to take a corner.
To make a bad situation worse, City lost John Stones to what appeared to be a hamstring injury. With Aymeric Laporte still several weeks from making his comeback, that leaves City with only one recognized central defender, Nicolas Otamendi, plus Fernandinho who has been covering the position of late.
But this was also about United playing with a heart and drive that has often been missing over the past couple of seasons. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was believed to be under pressure, possibly facing being replaced by Mauricio Pochettino if performances against Tottenham on Wednesday and here were poor, but instead United produced probably its best two displays of the season. Solskjaer has talked for a while of United being ready to go on a run and after five league games unbeaten, this is perhaps it. It is now fifth, and five points off Champions League qualification.
Marcus Rashford was superb, as he has been recently, but so too were Scott McTominay and, particularly, Fred, who is finally beginning to look the player United thought it was signing from Shakhtar. Even then, there was need for a couple of excellent saves from David De Gea and repeated blocks from Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Victor Lindelof, who celebrated one from Kevin De Bruyne like a goal.
The start to the game was remarkable, everything Solskjaer could have dreamed of. Although City dominated possession, and created a couple of half-chances, the first three saves were all from Ederson. City no longer presses as efficiently as it did in the past and with Rashford holding a high position on the left, United shredded the home side on the counter-attack and struck after 23 and 29 minutes.
The breakthrough, in the end, came courtesy of VAR. The referee Anthony Taylor had seen nothing amiss Bernardo Silva burdened over Rashford as he swooped in from the wing on the break, but VAR alerted him to his error and awarded the penalty. There is a perception among City fans that VAR decisions have consistently gone against them this season, heightened as two penalty shouts for handball were turned down before halftime, but this was surely the right call. In both instances, the calls were correct according to the guidelines—the ball bounced into Lindelof’s hand off his body, while Fred’s arm was between his body and the ground as he fell, both incidents specifically covered in the regulations.
Rashford, who had missed two of his six penalties this season, calmly waited for Ederson to commit and slipped the ball the other way, meaning he has now scored in his last seven games for club and country. He could easily have had a couple more in the following five minutes, sliding one shot just wide and clipping the bar with another as City followed the familiar pattern of Guardiola sides of wobbling after conceding. Just as the thought was beginning to form that United might rue all its missed chances, Anthony Martial added a second following another counter-attack, squeezing his shot in at the near post after a smart one-two with Dan James.
Although City asserted pressure in the final hour, and did finally pull one back through a Nicolas Otamendi header six minutes from time precipitating a late siege, United had just as many clear chances. It’s a sign if the flipped polarities in Manchester that City is so obviously technically superior, and that is something United will need to change, but in a one-off game Solskjaer’s side had enough pace, organization and commitment to force a result.
A title challenge is still some way off for United, but it has at least inflicted a significant blow in loosening City’s grip on the trophy.