The two troubled Manchester titans conducted a very public therapy session at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday. United’s mental problems cost it dear and although City was a neurotic mess in the last 15 minutes, the home team clung on for a precious 1-0 victory.
City entered the game having suffered two defeats since it threw away a two-goal lead in another disappointing Champions League result in Moscow on October 21. The defending champions have shown a remarkable ability to fight back from apparently lost situations in the league. Yet the prospect of another early Champions League exit and Chelsea’s nine-point lead after it beat QPR 2-1 on Saturday may be fostering doubts. City looked listless from the start. Then it received a little help from Chris Smalling.
It’s a good life rule not to work with stupid people. Louis van Gaal, the United manager, is not famous for his forgiving nature and he made his feelings quite clear when he said the way Smalling earned red card was “stupid.” Upfield for a set piece in the 31st minute, the center back stood in front of Joe Hart then stuck out a leg to block the goalie’s clearing kick. Smalling must have known that would bring an automatic yellow card.
Seven minutes later, with James Milner heading in the direction of the corner flag, Smalling needlessly chased out of the middle and, even more needlessly, demolished the City midfielder with a lunging tackle. It earned a second yellow. United was down to 10 men.
"The second yellow card is a stupid yellow card," Van Gaal told BBC Sport. "As a player you have to control your aggression.”
"I didn't see the first yellow but with the second, you know you already have a yellow, so have to handle it differently,” Van Gaal said.
United is already without center backs Jonny Evans and Phil Jones. Down to 10 men and with Michael Carrick as a makeshift central defender, it was still holding City at bay after almost an hour.
Much had been made of the confrontations between the star Argentines: Ángel di Maria versus Pablo Zabaleta, Sergio Agüero against his enemy Marcos Rojo. But it was an unlikely Argentine confrontation that hurt United. After 59 minutes, Martín Dimichelis burst forward. As Rojo charged out, Dimichelis produced an unlikely sidestep. Rojo injured himself on his slide tackle attempt and was carried off. That brought on 19-year Paddy McNair a player whose inexperience may have provided City with more chances.
Yet the crack, when it came, from more experienced men. After 63 minutes, Marouane Fallaini wandered away from Yaya Touré in midfield. Di Maria failed to keep up with Gael Clichy and to cut out Touré’s pass to the overlapping fullback. Clichy had time to pick his pass from the wing. Naturally, the pass he picked was to Agüero. Naturally, Agüero scored.
Three years ago, after Evans received a red card with United one goal down in this same fixture, City had pounced ruthlessly and gone on to ht six. This is a different City team; it never got out of third gear after Smalling's red. Indeed, with Manuel Pellegrini replacing Agüero with Fernandinho, City stalled almost entirely.
United showed fight. Wayne Rooney ran through the City defense then, strangely, failed to shoot. Hart saved efforts from Robin van Persie and Di Maria. Fellaini shot wide.
“They were panicking towards the end,” Rooney told the BBC. “We just could not get the equalizer."
Panic is not an overstatement. In the final minutes, City players were so edgy they could hardly complete a pass. They were content to simply wallop the ball as far down the field as they could. Perhaps a derby victory will calm their nerves.
• The bad and the ugly: Tottenham also benefitted from a red card in an undeserved 2-1 victory at Villa Park.
In a meeting of the stoppable force and the movable object, Tottenham allowed Villa to end its 50-day scoring drought. When Andreas Weimann poked in the opening goal after 16 minutes, he ended 558 scoreless minutes of play by Villa. Then Christian Benteke was sent off after 64 minutes, partly for gently slapping the provocative Ryan Mason and partly for his general surliness.
Villa, bad enough with 11 men, could not hold on. Nacer Chadli leveled from close range. In the 90th minute, Nathan Baker leapt in the defensive wall to head Harry Kane’s tame free kick and only succeeded in guiding it past a wrong-footed Brad Guzan. That bad goal summed up an ugly match.
“This is football, sometimes you are lucky,” Mauricio Pochettino, the Spurs manager told Sky.
Villa remain mediocre. Under Pochettino, Spurs are rapidly sinking to that level.
• Saints go marching on: It is tempting to say that at least one of Pochettino’s teams is exceeding expectations. But after Southampton was plundered by richer clubs in the summer, this is hardly "his" team anymore. Only six of the men who started for Southampton in a 1-0 victory at Hull on Saturday were at the club last season, when Pochettino was in charge.
Southampton showed it can win in different ways. After four minutes, Victor Wanyana pounced on a poor clearance by goalie Eldin Jakupovic to first-time to ball into the empty goal from long range. After that, Saints held on fairly comfortably.
Perhaps the system and confidence Pochettino instilled explains Southampton’s surging form. But his replacement, Ronald Koeman, is no mug and had a say in the signing of two Dutch-based players, Graziano Pelle and Dusan Tadic.
Southampton made a profit of more tan £35 million and still upgraded. It is in second place, two points ahead of City, five ahead on Arsenal, eight ahead of Liverpool and Spurs. It looks capable of a top-four finish.
It had better make the most of its chance now. It can expect to be strip-mined again in the winter and next summer: Wanyama, Pelle, Nathaniel Clyne, Jay Rodriguez and Morgan Schneiderlin can all expect rich suitors.
• Flying the flag: Americans have fallen out of fashion in the Premier League. But Geoff Cameron displayed his value again as Stoke drew 2-2 with West Ham on Saturday.
Cameron missed the start of the season after hernia surgery. On Saturday, he was a conspicuous contributor. Cameron is always conspicuous. At 6-foot-3, he is built like a giraffe and runs like one too. On Saturday, as Stoke dominated the first half, almost every moment of danger came from Cameron’s surges up the right wing.
He completed more passes than any other Stoke defender – or any West Ham player. More than half of them were in the opposing half. He also contributed defensively. Cameron had more “ball recoveries,” as OPTA calls them, than any other Stoke player. He didn’t miss a tackle, completing six; more than any other player.
After West Ham had staged an unlikely fight back from two down, Cameron popped up in front of goal. Glory beckoned. He shot wide.