Manchester United survived Chris Smalling’s sending off and three clear penalty appeals, but Sergio Agüero finally made them pay to give City the spoils in Sunday’s Manchester derby at the Etihad. Agüero produced a clinical finish from Gael Clichy’s pull back just past the hour mark to continue his prolific form and finally give City something to show for their increasing dominance over the 10-man visitors.
A contest that was keenly contested between a City side in something of a slump and a United team on a high after last week’s draw with Chelsea swung decisively toward the blue half of Manchester once Smalling foolishly got himself booked twice in the space of 10 minutes before halftime. United survived to the interval, despite both Agüero and Yaya Toure appealing with strong substance for penalties after challenges from Marouane Fellaini and Marcos Rojo, respectively. Louis van Gaal’s men continued to hang on, too, when Agüero was denied another clear spot kick as Fellaini and Michael Carrick, brought on as a makeshift center-back, both converged on him. But soon after United’s defense was forced into yet another reshuffle, when Rojo was taken off with a serious-looking shoulder injury to be replaced by Paddy McNair, they succumbed and Agüero pounced to get his and City’s just rewards.
Van Gaal will clearly rue Smalling’s dismissal as well as a glorious chance to equalize squandered by Fellaini, but can again take positives from the way his side competed with one of the league’s best both before going a man down and admirably after going a goal down. Yet his overriding takeaway may well be concern at the continued problems, both in terms of numbers and quality, of his ailing backline. Meanwhile, his opposite number, Manuel Pellegrini, will be thrilled to have ended a run of three games without a win to prevent Chelsea from extending their already sizable six-point advantage. After a slow start, City showed the greater speed going forward he had asked for, too. Still, the struggles they had in closing out the numerically compromised visitors again reflected a team with a discernable brittleness when compared to the Premier League pace-setters.
After losses to West Ham in the league and Newcastle United in the Capital One Cup, Manchester City encountered a United team that was again set up strongly in the midfield. Wayne Rooney returned from suspension and went into a midfield three alongside Fellaini and Daley Blind, and, just as against Chelsea, there was renewed solidity about United and a fair amount of control. Against City’s two-man midfield, Untied had a greater share of possession in the opening half. Yet their attacking trio made little impact in the final third. One of the few times they combined effectively came when Di Maria chipped the ball up to Robin van Persie, who headed it down for Adnan Januzaj to miscue a shot wide.
City were the team playing on the break and they flickered in the life around the 20 minute mark to twice expose United’s defensive failings down the flanks. Jesus Navas should have done better than shoot straight at De Gea, but United’s Spanish goalkeeper was superb moments later in coming out to block from Aguero at pointblank range.
The hosts soon got a most generous present from their local rivals to swing the match in their favor. Having only just been booked for needlessly blocking Joe Hart from kicking the ball upfield, Smalling lunged in on James Milner. The defender could have no complaints when another yellow and then red came out, but that was to be the last occasion when referee Michael Oliver would do anything to please those in blue.
It was perhaps easy to understand City’s penalty appeal not been awarded when Fellaini, temporarily forced into the backline, clumsily brought down Aguero from behind when Oliver’s view was impaired. Quite why he didn’t point to the spot when Rojo stretched and brought Toure down when he was through on goal, though, only he will know. Not only should Untied have conceded a penalty but they should have been reduced to just nine men.
The pressure was cranked up by City at the start of the second half, but they endured further frustration when Carrick kicked Aguero’s shin and then Fellaini stuck a leg across his path for good measure as the Argentinean was felled trying to dance round the United defense. Aguero would have the last word. United were still adjusting from their latest defensive adjustment when Di Maria was caught out to allow Toure’s fine pass to reach Gael Clichy on the byline and then Aguero to peel off the just introduced McNair and finish emphatically past De Gea.
At that point it appeared City could go on to at least match the margin of victory in their 4-1 demolition of United in the same fixture last season. But while Manchester United may have just 13 points from 10 games to start this season, four points less than under David Moyes, the performances of Van Gaal’s team provide far more by which to be encouraged. City strangely took their foot off the gas after going in front, but United offered a spirited response.
Rooney embodied that fight when surging through the City team before being crowded out and Di Maria having a right-footed effort saved low by Hart. The clearest chance, though, came for Fellaini. After scoring against West Brom and then having his header set up Van Persie’s late equalizer against Chelsea, the Belgian could have come up trumps again, but, having got free in front of goal from a free-kick, the ball came off his shoulder rather than his head. Still, an equalizer would have been unjust on City, which, now with four Manchester derby wins on the bounce for the first time since 1970, remain a cut above their once-dominant foes.