Sunday, September 20, 2009

Manchester Derby: Early Game of the Season?

"Sometimes you have a noisy neighbor. You cannot do anything about that. They will always be noisy. You just have to get on with your life, put your television on and turn it up a bit louder." -SAF

If the European season and World Cup can produce a few games to match today's Manchester Derby, well then we'll be in for quite a treat.

This game had so many story lines going in, you often wonder whether the match can live up to the hype, and are only amazed when the game far exceeds it. Three Manchester United leads, three City comebacks, and Michael Owen's late late late winner left at least this observer a little stunned after all the action.

I suppose any and all discussions must start with Carlos Tevez. We've all know the background story, and the back and forth snipings, I'm sure. To his credit, Tevez was coming back from a knee injury and played a major part in much of the action.

After Rooney's opening goal, City equalized after a Ben Foster blunder allowed Tevez to steal the ball and set up Gareth Barry for a cool finish. Tevez also assisted on Craig Bellamy's first goal. However, Tevez also hit the post when he probably should have scored in the first half, and his role in Owen's injury time winner hasn't been discussed much. Let me to do the honors. Tevez's foul set up the Rooney free kick that initialized the final sequence. Rooney's ball was poor and the clearance came right back to Tevez, but Tevez neither controlled the ball to kill the final seconds, nor did he manage to flick the ball past Rooney. This enabled Rooney to send the ball back toward the box, where it eventually found Giggs, who subsequently found Owen. For all his hard work, if Tevez does better on two occasions at the end there, City may steal the point.

As for Man U, Foster continues a long line of shaky English goalkeeping. After gifting the first, he can't be blamed for City's second goal, an excellent shot by Craig Bellamy. But Foster played Bellamy's second goal very poorly. While Rio Ferdinand is entirely at fault on that play for his absurd, casual scoop-pass attempt/giveaway, Foster probably could have done better.

Man U did have plenty of good performances, including a fabulous game by Ryan Giggs, who 700 starts in continues to be a key cog of the Red Devil machine (unlike Paul Scholes, who is on his last legs). Giggs's pass to Owen was perfect, enabling Tevez's replacement to do what he's always been able to do, coolly and calmly finish as a finisher should.

Rooney keeps looking like he's going to really reach another level, stepping out of Ronaldo's shadow, which bodes well for Man U's hopes of retaining their title this season (and England will hope it lasts through the summer). He continued his hot streak with another very well taken goal that showed Rooney's strength and balance.

Antonio Valencia could well be doomed to disappoint because he will forever be thought of as the man brought in after Cristiano Ronaldo, but in the second half he brought width and helped push Man U's attack to another gear. Ji-Sung Park may have started, but it's unlikely he will keep his place in key games.

Special note must be given for Darren Fletcher. Though still often taken for granted or overlooked, he is gradually being recognized as one of the more important players on Man U. An abundance of players have been brought in to fortify the Man U midfield (remember Owen Hargreaves?), particularly in search of the heir to Roy Keane. Fletcher continues to fight off many challengers and is usually first choice for all the big games. He's no Roy Keane, but it's players of his ilk that separate the winners of Man U from the nearly-men (or boys) of Arsenal, and probably Man City this season. Those teams can win in style, but struggle in the tough games that need a player with the fortitude of a Darren Fletcher. (Note that Chelsea has these players, hence their titles; Liverpool has everything-man Gerrard and Mascherano, but no title yet.) Fletcher's absence in the Champions League final last season was bemoaned by Sir Alex and all of Man U's players, and while he single handedly would not have altered that result, his past two displays against Tottenham and now Man City have cemented his status and importance. His two headed goals today were well taken and should have won the game prior to the frantic final minutes of extra time.

As for Man City, despite being dominated in the second half, they showed signs that they will be a dangerous team. Remember they didn't even have arguably their best two players - Adebayor and Robinho. Yet they still remain a ways off before truly contending. Their defense is certainly not up to snuff, even though Man U would certainly swap Ben Foster for Shay Given. City's midfield also lacks the quality of Man U, Chelsea, and Liverpool, though Nigel de Jong showed promising signs in the first half.

Of course I can't forget to mention the controversy surrounding the final goal. The fourth referee indicated 4 minutes of extra time. The clock read 95:28 when the ball hit the back of the net. Mark Hughe's certainly has something to complain about. However, the Bellamy equalizer came during extra time, so if you add on the an extra minute for the goal celebrations and the last Man U sub, that get's you to five extra minutes. I guess the last 30 seconds came from the ref not wanting to kill the game in the midst of a final attack. Clearly Man U got a little benefit from being the home team. Fully admitted I think. But I also hate when a ref ends extra time right on the dot even if the ball is in the middle of a chance. Not a great argument I know. But still, Man U deserved the three points today, and City will just need to build on this performance the rest of the season. Mark on your calendars April 17, 2010, when the return fixture is played, likely with a lot on the line with only three games after that remaining in the 2009-2010 season.

Old Trafford's Stretford End may have said it best in rebuking the new blue half of Manchester (and really this applies to the Blues over in London as well) - "Your Players Make Money, Our Players Make History."

(Video definitely to come)

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