It’s one of those commonly held beliefs in football that Manchester United never play for anything less than a victory. At least that was the case in the Premier League under Sir Alex Ferguson. Throughout his reign at Old Trafford, many believed that his side played to the end and always looked to win.
Whatever your thoughts of Manchester United, that wasn’t the case when the Reds made the short trip to the Etihad at the end of April in 2012. On that Monday evening, with the situation at the top of the table as it was, Fergusson set his team up not to lose – and with good reason.
Roberto Mancini’s City were in second place and three points behind their rivals, but with a better goal difference. A few weeks earlier, the Blues were a further five points down and had closed the gap – and, when this fixture came around, it had become a must-win for the Italian’s side.
For United, it was a must-not-lose – a draw left them three points ahead, with two matches of the season remaining. That would have meant the Reds would have needed a win and a draw to clinch the Premier League title. Had they won the match, a draw in the final two matches would have done it.
In the backs of their minds, though, United’s players, staff and fans knew that a City win would give the Blues marginal control of the title race. It would take them back to the top of the table on goal difference.
Indeed, Ferguson saw no value in giving Mancini that initiative and he set up his team pragmatically – leaving out the likes of the creative Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia in favour of the more less-risk approach of the likes of Park Ji-Sung, Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes. He came for the draw and he left with nothing; his side didn’t even manage a shot on target.
It was pretty much one-way traffic after an early corner was scrambled away by City’s defence. A Samir Nasri pull-back was slightly too far behind Sergio Aguero and the Argentine couldn’t quite get it under control; his shot was skewed wide. His first touch got it into a shooting position, but it allowed Rio Ferdinand to close him down.
Pressure mounted towards the end of the first half and it was a corner in stoppage time that caused the breakthrough. David De Gea punched the first cross into the box and the loose ball was attempted to be redelivered by Nasri, after good work by David Silva – but it was blocked behind.
From that second corner, Vincent Kompany escaped the attention of Chris Smalling and found a gap inside the six-yard box. Silva’s ball was perfect and the captain found the net above the head of De Gea. It was a deserved lead and the release of tension inside the Etihad was palpable.
The United backlash was expected after the break, but it never came. Instead, it was City who could – perhaps should – have taken the game by the scruff of the neck and made their dominance pay. Yaya Toure smashed a low cross into the box that was hoofed clear by the goalkeeper, before the Ivorian hammered an effort at goal that skewed wide.
City had got to Ferguson – and the flashpoint came with just under 20 minutes to play. Mancini had thrown Nigel De Jong into the game to shore up the middle and allow Toure more creative freedom, but the Dutchman fouled Danny Welbeck as United broke. It wasn’t a dirty challenge, though fairly cynical, and on the sidelines the managers clashed.
Ferguson claimed in his interview with the BBC that the Italian was “badgering” the official: “He refereed the game the whole night. He was into the fourth official time and time again. The minute I come off the bench to complain about the tackle by De Jong on Welbeck – I thought it was a bad tackle – and immediately he’s out there haranguing the referee again.”
Mancini felt that was a bit rich: “Him? No. He doesn’t talk with the referee, fourth official? No. Never.”
It got laughs from the press room.
On the pitch, it was still all City. Toure picked up a loose ball in the middle and drove at the United defence, curling a left-footed shot just wide. Gael Clichy fired in a low drive that De Gea pushed away. Nasri somehow didn’t get a shot away from four yards out, after weaving side to side around Smalling – that was after Toure had pulled off one of the quickest drives the Premier League has seen, across 50 yards to keep the ball in play.
The game ended with United having the chance to equalise as a scramble in the City box left hearts in mouths. Eventually, Joe Hart came for a high ball and was clattered by Smalling and the home fans were relieved to see a foul given. The goalkeeper was too injured to take it himself, but Kompany thumped the ball forward and Andre Marriner blew the full time whistle.
City were top again.
After the match, Blues boss Mancini said:
“We are happy, but it doesn’t change anything. We have another two games, two really difficult games, but instead United will play two easy games. United have a slight advantage yet.
“They defended with all players for all of the game. They didn’t have any chances to score. I think we did a good performance, but we knew before it would be a difficult game because United are a top team.”
Meanwhile, Sir Alex was disappointed:
“I think we didn’t test the goalkeeper enough. We started the game quite brightly for 15 minutes, possession of the ball was good, and we dominated that period. The longer the half went on, I felt we were looking for half time.
“Losing a goal at that time was a bad time to lose it. After that, they just sat and played on the counter-attack. I can’t complain about the result, I thought they were more threat from counter-attacks and we didn’t really test the goalkeeper.”
City XI: Hart, Zabaleta, Kompany (c), Lescott, Clichy, Barry, Toure, Nasri (Milner 90), Silva (Richards 82), Aguero, Tevez (De Jong 68)
Unused: Pantilimon, Kolarov, Dzeko, Balotelli
You can watch the highlights of the match here.
At number one on this day was Carly Rae Jepsen with her smash hit, Call Me Maybe.
UK cinema was graced with the first of The Hunger Games films at the time of this match.
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Written by David Mooney.