One of the lasting benefits of watching soccer (football or whatever you want to call it) is how it never ceases to surprise and just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, everything changes. Such was the nature of today’s FA Cup Third Round match between Premier League Leaders Man City and their closest rivals Manchester United. The match ended in a 3-2 win for United but the events that led to that result left me in in a state of complete disbelief.
I guess it all started during the build up to the game when all kinds of reports, Tweets and blog posts suggested some of the weirdest stuff you will ever read. We had talk of who Man Utd would buy in the January transfer window to Wayne Rooney being sold by his club for $90m to, of all teams, Man City. Then we heard fairy tale talk at the last minute of how Paul Scholes would be incredibly brought out of retirement to make a magical appearance in a crucial derby clash. I have to admit that I do spend time on Twitter in the interests of my blog and there are times when I’m just left scratching my head. Questions were raised about how serious both managers would take this game as it was, after all, an FA Cup tie, and both sides had bigger fish to fry. I had even suggested that Ferguson would not start his best XI and that Rooney would sit on the bench. Other bloggers suggested that he had even played his last game for the club. How wrong we all were.
Anyhow, out walked the teams at the start and we had to rub our eyes to be sure what we were seeing. A full strength United side was starting the match, with Paul Scholes on the bench. Unbelievable. Further, it was City who maybe fielded a more depleted team with first choice keeper Joe Hart sitting on the bench and 6ft 8in beanpole Romanian keeper Costel Pantilimon (who… ?) making his first start at The Etihad Stadium, Mancini’s first mistake in my view. United kicked off and Rooney settled into the center of midfield with Welbeck up front as the lone striker and for the first 7-8 minutes, United parked the bus and defended which in itself was highly unusual. Then United, in almost their first attack, surprisingly scored with a Rooney header, that I thought, Joe Hart might have collected. 1-0 United. What happened next completely changed the game. Vincent Kompany, City’s stalwart Belgian defender and their captain, barreled in with a two footed tackle, studs exposed, on Nani, who jumped to avoid the hammering that was imminent, and immediately, with no small amount of cajoling from Wayne Rooney, referee Chris Foy showed Kompany, the red card. A harsh decision it seemed but not surprising as Premier League referees are instructed to red card any two footed challenge that is deemed to be dangerous play, with or without contact. Down to ten men and a goal down, City looked shell shocked and United took over scoring two more goals. One from Danny Welbeck and another from a Wayne Rooney penalty which was initially saved by Pantilimon, but he parried it right back to the kick taker who headed the ball in. United could have gone 4-0 up at the break if Welbeck had converted a Valencia cross that only needed a touch to score. When the whistle blew for half time, it appeared the match was over. United 3-0 up and City down to 10 men.
Man City manager Roberto Mancini then made some crucial changes in the second half pulling off Silva and Johnson for Savich and Zabaleta and effectively leaving three at the back with two roving wing backs. Smart move. United made no changes and frankly, I thought that they would now go on to kill the game and City with it and run out 3-0 winners. So much for that idea as within 3 minutes of the re-start, City scored from a terrific Kolarov free kick that Lindegaard probably couldn’t have saved but with the recent shakiness in United’s goalkeeping department, it’s effect would be significant. Surprisingly, United completely lost control of the game at that point and City took over. On 60 mins, I thought I was seeing things as Ferguson took off an average Nani and sent on 37 year old Paul Scholes who was effectively being pulled out of retirement to help his team survive the last 30 mins. Why Ferguson didn’t bring on Ji-Sung Park, I will never understand and lo and behold, only 5 minutes after he came on, Scholes fluffed an easy pass out by the corner flag allowing City to swoop in and score from a Lindegaard rebound to make it 3-2 to United. Now the alarm bells were all going off on United’s bench as City, with 10 men remember, pushed hard for an equalizer. United hardly managed a chance in the second half even though Valencia had a blatant penalty claim waved away by referee Foy, and even in the last 3 mins of injury time, City might have equalized as Lindegaard fluffed another easy catch. I swear you could hear his teeth chattering and his knees knocking from the pressure he was feeling. In the end, United survived and ran out 3-2 winners. After the game, former United legends David Beckham, Roy Keane, and Gary Neville were seen leaving their seats and running into the United dressing room carrying pens ready to sign up to play. Rumor has it that Bobby Charlton ran in there too.
Much was made of the possible fallout for both clubs following a game of this type and truthfully, at half time, I felt United obviously held all the cards, but after their tepid and mistake riddled second half, there is no doubt that despite losing today and going out of the FA Cup, Man City came away with more credibility. It also appears that City will appeal Vincent Kompany’s red card offence to the FA, even though former official Dermot Gallagher supported Foy’s decision. I think it’s unlikely that the decision will be overturned as the review panel only does that where they can see a referee has made a serious and blatant error or misjudgement. That was not the case today.
The question is whether given their player absences, City can now push on and win the League. United have similar player issues but are clearly in a confidence slump again and over the next 6-8 weeks, opponents such as Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool (twice – once in the FA Cup Fourth Round), and Ajax, will severely test their ability to mount a serious challenge to Man City’s superiority.
Either way, it was quite a game today.