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The Manchester derby; a game of two halves…

It’s around 24 hours since the final whistle blew at the Etihad and I’m still a mess emotionally. It’s been a long time since Manchester United played like that against any of their direct rivals probably since the Robin van Persie Derby in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final campaign. 

In the end, it was a stunning turnaround from a dreadful first-half performance that brought the points. The team showed fight, courage, and spirit that they have shown only on rare occasions this season. For all the criticism Paul Pogba received over the past couple of months, he showed his quality on the biggest of stages. Same goes for Alexis Sanchez and Ander Herrera. Sanchez seems to have turned a corner in his United career and now has a goal and three assists in his last two games. Peaking in the business end of the season. 

But as good as they were in the second period, United were abysmal in the first period. The Manchester City midfield were running circles around Nemanja Matic, Pogba, and Herrera. The midfield were overrun countless times despite this City team not playing their best central midfielder and a striker. United should also thank Raheem Sterling for forgetting his shooting boots on the team coach and it could have far uglier than the 2-0 scoreline at halftime. 

United could just not deal with the pressing by the City frontmen and the midfielders and we were barely able to string two passes together. As a unit, United didn’t have a single shot on target in the first half and registered a solitary touch in the opposition penalty box. Dreadful for a team with United’s quality in a Derby. The forward line were disoriented and players like Sanchez and Jesse Lingard tried to overdo things when on the ball. It was as if the moment got to them in the first half. 

Barely able to string passes together let alone create genuine scoring opportunities, it looked as it was game-set-match-championship Manchester City at the Etihad. 

But this is Manchester United we are talking about and a two-goal lead is never quite safe as a single goal can turn things around. Of course, for the goal to come and give United half a chance at salvaging something, their intent and spirit needed addressing. I’m not exactly sure what Jose Mourinho told the lads at half-time but I can guarantee that it would have been something iconic, something on the lines of Sir Alex’s famous half-time team talks. The team came out of the tunnel wasn’t the same team that went in at half-time. There was a marked difference in intent and ambition from the off in the second period. 

Mourinho’s instructions were clear: string a handful of passes and keep things simple in the attacking third. Players like Alexis Sanchez, Paul Pogba stepped up to the plate and delivered when it mattered. Herrera who has not been as good as he was last term became more effective and played perhaps his best 45 minutes against City. United upped the tempo and finally managed to get some semblance of an attack going. While the first goal was a mixture of class from Sanchez, Herrera and a cool finish from Pogba, it got United back into the game and the comeback was on. 

The second goal scored by United was a thing of beauty: short simple passes to carve out space in the midfield ended up with Pogba finding Sanchez. The latter’s pin-point cross was met by Pogba and the match was turned on its head. The second goal didn’t involve individual class but it was rather a team effort. The City players just could not get close enough to their United counterparts and it was a vintage United attack. Even at 2-2, many including myself expected United to slow it down and play for a draw and I haven’t been happier at being proven wrong.

They showed desire and passion that the team has so often been criticized for. For Smalling to pop up with the winner especially given the circumstances under which United conceded their first is remarkable. The team made amends for their first-half performance and it was epitomized by Smalling scoring the winner. This game is an exhibition for the United spirit and provided an ample reality check that no matter that the scenario may be in the build-up to this game, Manchester City will always be the little one. 

Credit to players like Alexis Sanchez, who came into his own and now has a goal and three assists in his last two starts and Pogba, whose future was bought into scrutiny yet again after Guardiola’s comments prior to the game. The players let their feet do the talking and it was a comeback of epic proportions for a team like United to go and get a result in the backyard of the “greatest English football team in history”. 

The result now means that United have defeated three of last seasons’ top four in the space of five weeks with the opportunity to beat the other two sides in the top six prior to the end of the month. United are all but secured second place in the league and have the perfect opportunity to finish the season strongly and build ahead of the next season.

Written by Vivek Menon

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