For the first time in five seasons, Manchester United beat Manchester City at home in the Premier League. It was just the second time in nine seasons, in fact, that the Red Devils won on home soil in a league match with the cross-town rivals Sir Alex Ferguson famously derided as the “noisy neighbors.”
And Sunday’s 2-0 home win, thanks to Anthony Martial’s first-half goal and Scott McTominay’s 97th-minute long-range curler, marked the first time in four Manchester derbies this season, across the league and their two-legged League Cup semifinal, that the home team actually won.
It was an odd kind of derby, because City manager Pep Guardiola announced ahead of the game that the team’s “finals” were the upcoming quarterfinal of the FA Cup against Newcastle United and the return leg of the Champions League round of 16 tie with Real Madrid on March 17.
City’s much-discussed two-season ban from European competition means that it has little to play for in the league but prize money – which is ironic, given that the club was punished for misrepresenting its income in the Financial Fair Play accounting. The title is long gone, after all, what with Liverpool’s 25-point lead atop the table. Which is why City didn’t field its best player, Kevin de Bruyne, on Sunday to protect his lingering shoulder injury.
It was odd, too, in the sense that for all of City’s recent success, for its metamorphosis from the city’s ugly duckling into a global powerhouse just as United fell hard from its lofty perch, it was the troubled Red Devils who have now done the league double over their rivals for the first time since the 2009-10 season – back when United’s superiority seemed preordained for all eternity, never mind those ambitious new City owners from Abu Dhabi.
United, in fact, has not lost since Portuguese midfielder Bruno Fernandes was poached from Sporting Lisbon on Jan. 30. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s once-embattled side, in fact, has put together a 10-game unbeaten run now, by far its best stretch of a mostly dreary season.
City had the first chance Sunday when Sergio Aguero bulled his way past Luke Shaw over the length of 40 yards and found Raheem Sterling. But the latter’s low finish was pushed away well by David de Gea.
Martial had a first chance in the 28th minute, but finished right at Ederson. Then, after Fernandes was fouled, he chipped the free kick into the path of Martial, who volleyed it past Ederson at his near post, displaying a superb bit of skill. The Brazilian goalkeeper managed to get two hands on the ball, but it slipped under both of them.
Before halftime, Fred had a claim for a penalty that was entirely credible as Nicolas Otamendi kicked him in the shin in the box. But the United midfielder was given a yellow for simulation instead, once again raising the question what the use of the Video Assistant Referee is if blatant mistakes are still missed.
Remarkably, City had 69 percent possession in the first half yet found itself outshot 7-to-1, illustrative of its trouble locating space between United’s tight lines. City threatened more in the second half, and built its possession advantage even further, without ultimately capitalizing.
Aguero smashed the ball into United’s net shortly after the intermission but was found to be marginally offside. And then Ederson misplayed a back-pass at the other end and very nearly allowed Martial to poke it into his goal.
Things weren’t settled until the 97th minute, when Ederson hurled the ball into no-man’s land, where McTominay got to it first and popped it into the empty net from some 30 yards.
In another twist in this strange season, the United victory lifted it into fifth place. Meaning that, as things stand, Solskjaer’s side will claim the Champions League berth vacated by City because of UEFA’s ban, even though United has 12 fewer points. That, of course, is why Guardiola has downgraded the importance of the league season in the first place.
Yet United’s superiority over this season nevertheless feels like an upset.
City may now be the more relevant club, on both a domestic and global scale, yet United has the bragging rights for this year. And, at long last, a little momentum to go along with it.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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