November  2014 - Reports
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Southampton 0 Manchester City 3          Saints Downed
Saturday 29th November 2014 : Barry Brennan for GYKO at St Mary's Stadium

The champions are stirring. Manchester City’s third win in eight days has shaved the distance between them and Chelsea at the top and, more significantly, breathed new conviction into those now closest in the pursuit. Manuel Pellegrini’s team are second having finally generated proper momentum in the title race. The chase is under way.

Where City’s successes over Swansea the previous weekend and Bayern Munich in midweek had been rather chaotic, laced with desperation as they sought to kick-start domestic and European challenges, a first win at Southampton in more than a decade ended up seeming convincing. A tight contest eventually gave way as the visitors’ quality told, even with their side reduced to 10 by Eliaquim Mangala’s dismissal and, later, to nine when Vincent Kompany hobbled off after tweaking a hamstring.

The captain will be assessed on Monday and Wednesday’s trip to Sunderland would appear more awkward if that pair are absent, but authority is clearly returning to the side’s approach. It was at this stage last term that City embarked on a run of 11 wins in 12 unbeaten league games to mount the challenge that would eventually yield a second title in three seasons. As José Mourinho has consistently suggested at Chelsea, this year’s race is far from run.

There was panache to the way the visitors responded to Mangala’s loss when their lead had suddenly been rendered fragile, the manner in which the substitutes, James Milner and Frank Lampard, combined for the latter to dispatch his side’s second 10 minutes from time – a precise finish from the edge of the area – a reminder of underlying pedigree.

Retaining the veteran former England midfielder once his loan deal from New York City expires in January is fast becoming a priority. Sergio Agüero, on his 100th league appearance for the club, subsequently conjured a glorious assist for Gaël Clichy to belt in a first City goal, as an unlikely right winger, two minutes from time.

That ambition to keep pouring forward even with their number depleted gave the scoreline gloss that was rather harsh on Southampton, but left the whole occasion feeling like a statement of the champions’ intent. Visiting teams tend not to run riot at St Mary’s these days. There is normally too much class to Ronald Koeman’s team for them to be overrun and overwhelmed, too much poise in their play and pace in their approach to be humiliated, and few other sides will hope to register a victory this eye-catching on the south coast.

The hosts were undoubtedly hampered by Morgan Schneiderlin’s departure with a thigh injury at the interval, not least because the Frenchman’s absence thrust the side’s best defender, Toby Alderweireld, into a midfield brief. They never really recovered from the reshuffle, their shield in the centre breached and bypassed. Koeman’s team have their own daunting schedule ahead, with two games against Manchester United plus Arsenal, Chelsea and Everton to come before mid-January. Theirs has now become a test of recovery before Wednesday’s game at the Emirates, with improvement required.

“Morgan is always a big influence on our game and we don’t have the squad like City to change things,” said the home manager. “But if you make these kind of mistakes … It was not good enough today. Maybe two or three of my players reached the level they can [normally] show. We were punished for that.”

They had been provided with an early escape when Agüero wriggled into the area and poked the ball beyond José Fonte, whose sliding challenge was mistimed and floored the Argentinian. The referee was perfectly positioned to witness the foul, which made his decision to flash a yellow for a dive all the more mystifying. Alderweireld had done well to improvise a block from Stevan Jovetic’s attempt just after the half-hour, but the home side never really came closer to scoring than in a pinball midway through the opening period when Joe Hart denied Graziano Pellè’s tentative prod and Steven Davis’ more threatening follow-up. Thereafter their sights of goal were more often snatched glimpses from distance.

City, in contrast, were increasingly menacing with Schneiderlin retired. Their opener had been forged by slick approach play around the edge of the Southampton penalty area, home players passing up opportunities to clear their lines before Agüero glided into space and on to Fernandinho’s pass, glanced up, and picked out Yaya Touré. The Ivorian was allowed to charge unhindered on to the striker’s delivery to dispatch a low drive which flicked off a home player to skim beyond Fraser Forster and in.

They appeared untroubled thereafter, Milner and Lampard busily shoring up midfield and Jesús Navas and Agüero passing up opportunities to extend the lead, before Shane Long pounced on Touré’s indecision to steal possession and dart towards goal. Mangala felled the forward just outside the box and the Frenchman was booked and dismissed, having earlier been cautioned for tripping Dusan Tadic.

“I thought Mangala played very well today,” said Pellegrini. “It was not him who lost the ball, so it was unnecessary. Remember, Southampton have important strikers and they had just one chance against our goalkeeper.” That was a reflection of the visitors’ underlying dominance. Southampton need not be deflated given the gulf in resources between the sides, but this was the natural order reimposing itself near the top. City’s pursuit is on.

Teams
Southampton:
Forster, Clyne, Fonte (c), Alderweireld, Bertrand, Wanyama, Schneiderlin (Yoshida, 46 mins), S. Davis (Mayuka, 81 mins), Tadić, Mané (Long, 67 mins), Pellè.       Unused subs: K. Davis, Gardos, Reed, Targett.    Bookings: Wanyama (7 mins)

Manchester City: Hart, Zabaleta, Kompany (c), Mangala, Clichy, Fernandinho, Toure, Navas (Demichelis, 75 mins), Jovetic (Milner, 54 mins), Nasri (Lampard, 65 mins), Aguero.

Unused subs: Caballero, Pozo, Fernando, Sagna    Bookings: Aguero (9 mins), Mangala (22 mins, 74 mins), Kompany (81 mins)

Referee: Mike Jones

Manchester City 3  Bayern Munich 2       Super Aguero
Tuesday 25th November 2014 : GYKO at the Etihad

The truly astonishing thing about what happened here in that wild, breathless finale is that, ignoring for one moment the extraordinary five-minute spell when Manchester City shocked maybe even themselves, it had been another night to expose their shortcomings in Europe. They had been out-passed, out-thought and frequently humbled by a Bayern side that were down to 10 men after 20 minutes and Manuel Pellegrini would have faced some difficult questions but for what happened next.

Many of those questions are still legitimate but if there is one thing that cannot be said of Pellegrini’s team it is that they lack qualities of perseverance. “We’ll fight to the end,” goes the song, and what a recovery in those last few minutes when Bayern Munich’s resolve disintegrated and Sergio Agüero turned this game upside down. It was the same net where Agüero had produced his 93:20 moment after the comeback of all comebacks. This one did not quite match the levels of hysteria but the euphoria, nonetheless, was extreme.

Agüero made it feel as though he must be immune to nerves on those two occasions when he ran clear to face Manuel Neuer, the best goalkeeper in his business. He had opened the scoring with a penalty and when everything was done his hat-trick had left City knowing that a scoring draw, when they face Roma in Stadio Olimpico, will be enough to qualify through the back door, as long as CSKA Moscow are incapable of beating Bayern in the Allianz Arena. The permutations are numerous and merely add to the chaotic feel of those final exchanges, when Pep Guardiola seemed to be straying dangerously close to the point of spontaneous combustion.

Bayern, even with 10 men, had an unerring knack of keeping the ball. Another team might have wilted after Mehdi Benatia was sent off for bringing down Agüero for his penalty. Bayern needed only a few minutes to shake their heads clear. They dominated possession – with 64% of the ball in the first half and 56% by the end – and Uefa’s statistics also showed the 10 men made 563 passes compared to City’s 403. Even in defeat, Bayern had left an impressive calling card.

They had also a midfielder in Xabi Alonso who demonstrated so much supreme control on the night of his 33rd birthday it felt almost absurd that he inadvertently set up Agüero’s second goal with a loose pass. Alonso’s free-kick to make it 1-1 was, in the vernacular of the schoolground, a pea-roller, played low and across the ground to pick out the bottom corner and expose some poor organisation between Joe Hart and his defensive wall. Yet Alonso’s contribution had been about much more than the equalising goal until he gave the ball to the substitute Stevan Jovetic and Agüero raced away to score with a left-footed finish.

Eleven-versus-eleven, Guardiola’s team had been strutting around to their own game of keep-ball. A man down, the Bundesliga champions seemed absolutely determined to show they could hold their own. City, in stark contrast, had looked erratic and prone to making mistakes. Alonso’s goal came from a foul by Fernando in a position where he should have been operating with more care and Robert Lewandowski had Vincent Kompany and Bacary Sagna around him when Jérôme Boateng swung over the right-sided cross for Bayern to take the lead. On the verge of half-time, Lewandowski benefited from some fortune as the ball spun off his shoulder to loop over Hart but his run had been brilliant.

Bayern’s only real mistake in the first half came in the form of Benatia’s poor positioning and mistimed challenge after Frank Lampard had clipped the ball over the top for Agüero to scamper clear. It was the way City surrendered their lead that was startling. Their problem was getting any control or momentum in the middle and the atmosphere, once again, was strangely subdued for the most part.

Perhaps the climax to this game might help City’s crowd to start embracing this competition a little more. It needed something remarkable and Alonso duly provided it with the misjudgment that had Guardiola hopping with exasperation on the touchline. Alonso had made 94 passes whereas, to put it into context, Kompany had City’s best figures with 52. This one, however, was a terrible lapse and Agüero is too formidable an opponent to offer those kind of gifts.

A draw would have flattered City but then came the moment when the previously immaculate Boateng went to intercept a routine ball forward and promptly surrendered it to Agüero on the edge of his own penalty area. Agüero deserves great acclaim for his perseverance, with that stocky, muscular frame, before breaking clear with the ball and holding his nerve again. Neuer was beaten for a third time and City, the team that fights to the end, will go to Rome in a new and unexpected position of strength.

Teams
Manchester City:


Hart, Sagna (Zabaleta 68), Clichy, Mangala, Kompany, Fernando, Milner (Jovetic 66), Lampard, Nasri, Navas, Aguero (Demichelis 90)

Unused subs:
Caballero, Boyata, Pozo, Glendon

Bookings:
Clichy, Aguero, Zabaleta
Bayern Munich: Neuer, Bernat, Rafinha, Boateng, Benatia, Alonso, Ribery (Schweinsteiger 81), Hojbjerg, Robben, Rode (Dante 25), Lewandowski (Shaqiri 84)

Unused subs: Zingerie, Gaudino, Gotze, Muller     Bookings: Benatia (sent off), Neuer

Referee: Pavel Kralovec (CZE)          Att:44,502
 

Manchester City 2  Swansea City 1     Stutter Against The Swans
Saturday 22nd November 2014 : Gyko at the Etihad


Yaya Touré came to Manchester City’s rescue again just as the defending champions were labouring in the second half and looking short of attacking ideas. With David Silva still injured and Sergio Agüero having a quiet game City’s attempts to stay in touch with Chelsea at the top of the Premier League were not amounting to much until their influential midfielder suddenly found the energy for one of his trademark bursts into the area.

Touré had not been having a particularly impressive game up until that point, and when he is below his best City usually are too, but when Fernandinho set him up with a nonchalant back heel into the area just after the hour mark there was no stopping the Ivorian.

Storming into the area Touré latched on to the ball and placed a low shot into Lukasz Fabianski’s bottom corner almost without breaking stride. It was Touré’s first league goal of the season at the Etihad, an indication of how out of sorts he has been, and only once in front did City show the sort of attacking confidence and expansiveness they will need to have any hope of catching Chelsea.

City could not add to their lead in the half-hour or so that remained, though only through Fabianski’s excellence in keeping out a late effort from Jesús Navas. At least they looked as if they believed in themselves and knew the way to goal, a vast improvement on the first half, and they must find a way of keeping the same momentum going to have any chance against Bayern Munich on Tuesday, when Touré will be suspended. They also need to work on their concentration in defence.
Yaya Touré scores Man City's second goal past Swansea's Lucasz Fabianski in the Premier League Yaya Touré scores Man City’s second goal past Swansea’s Lucasz Fabianski in the Premier League at the Etihad. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA

Improved though City were in the second half, they might still have been pegged back at the end when Swansea came agonisingly close with a deflected free kick, or when Wilfried Bony played Bafétimbi Gomis through on goal. Joe Hart came out quickly and did just enough to put off the substitute, though a more experienced striker would have made more of the opportunity. City must have been relieved it was not Gomis playing in Bony, for Swansea’s main striker had already shown his finishing prowess in the opening minutes.

“If we had scored a third goal it might have made the last five minutes easier,” Manuel Pellegrini said. “But considering we started off a goal down we played well and created a lot of chances. Defending is something we work every day to improve, and I hope we don’t make the same sort of mistakes when we face a difficult team like Bayern Munich.”

The home side had got off to an uncertain start when Swansea took the lead with a goal against the run of play after nine minutes. It was not that City had been piling on the pressure at the other end, they had not, but the visitors had shown little attacking endeavour until Bony and Nathan Dyer combined neatly for the former to find plenty of space in which to beat Hart. Bony supplied Dyer in the first place then moved forward, Dyer delayed the return pass until just the right moment for his team-mate to stay onside, then picked up his run with the deftest of chipped diagonal passes. The defence could only watch as Bony brought the ball down then turned to shoot past the goalkeeper.

It was not the show of strength Pellegrini had been looking for pre-Bayern, but City remained calm and stuck to their task of gradually wearing Swansea down. They drew level midway through the first half when after a patient build-up, Touré supplied Navas on the right, and Stevan Jovetic just about stayed onside to flick a teasing cross beyond Fabianski.

By the interval the Swansea goalkeeper was keeping his side in it. He showed quick reactions on the half-hour to deny Agüero when a great ball from Samir Nasri had put him through on goal, then on the stroke of half-time his outstretched fingertips pushed a tremendous 30 yard drive from Gaël Clichy on to his left upright.

A couple of more routine saves, both from Jovetic, ensured the teams turned round level, though Swansea were possibly lucky to start the second half with the same number of players as City after an incident on the half-hour when Kyle Bartley appeared to strike Agüero. The two players came together well away from the ball, so the referee understandably failed to see what happened, but Agüero first fell to the ground, then got up angrily to confront Àngel Rangel. That appeared to be a case of mistaken identity, if a foul had taken place Bartley was the culprit, and the Swansea defender had already been booked for a challenge on the same player.

“This is a hard place to come and that’s the closest we’ve been to a result,” Garry Monk said. “Considering we were relegation favourites at the start of the season we are not doing so bad. We had to do some last-ditch defending in the second half when City got going, but we had chances of our own at the end. We could possibly have taken a point.”

Teams
Manchester City:
Hart, Zabaleta, Demichelis, Kompany, Clichy, Yaya Toure, Fernandinho (Fernando 88), Navas, Jovetic (Lampard 70), Nasri (Milner 79), Aguero    Unused subs: Caballero, Sagna, Mangala, Pozo    Bookings: Kompany, Demichelis

Swansea City: Fabianski, Rangel, Bartley, Williams, Taylor, Ki, Carroll (Shelvey 67), Sigurdsson (Gomis 79), Dyer (Barrow 77), Montero, Bony
Unused subs: Tremmel, Tiendalli, Amat, Britton    Bookings: Bartley

Referee: Neil Swarbrick       Att:45,448

Queens Park Rangers 2 Manchester City 2   Capital Punishment
Saturday 8th November 2014 ; Michael Robinson at Loftus Road

Manuel Pellegrini may not be a fan of The Smiths but it is likely he appreciated being known as This Charming Man among Manchester City supporters last season. Indeed, as City closed in on their second Premier League title in three years, the manager spoke with pride of his ability to stay calm and polite under pressure, saying: “It is very important to control your emotions because when you have to take decisions under emotion you do it the wrong way.”

Wise words, yet six months on it appears Pellegrini is not living by his own advice. After this chaotic draw, his normally cool manner was replaced by agitation and anger, with the City manager having seen his team’s hopes of progressing in the Champions League and retaining their Premier League crown suffer notable blows in the space of four days.

“Hurry up, two minutes!” was the order Pellegrini barked at a group of reporters as they prepared to speak to him on Saturday evening, and while it is not a crime for anyone to lose their temper with journalists (some would actively encourage it), the moment was a startling one. In fairness, he answered every question but there was no doubting his simmering fury, with Sam Allardyce even receiving a metaphorical kicking.

Asked to respond to Allardyce’s assertion, made after West Ham’s 2-1 victory over City last month, that their £32m centre-back Eliaquim Mangala is being left exposed by his team-mates, Pellegrini said: “When you are a manager and win you have all the solutions. The same manager, we last year scored 14 goals [against in four games] and he didn’t have the solution.” Ouch.

Given the circumstances it would be no surprise if Pellegrini is feeling the pressure, with this undoubtedly his most difficult spell since succeeding Roberto Mancini 17 months ago. It is now just one win in six matches. City were shambolic during Wednesday’s 2-1 defeat by CSKA Moscow and followed that with a spirited but less-than-convincing showing against QPR, who have improved in recent weeks but remain stuck in the relegation zone. City should have swatted them aside in the downpour but instead Harry Redknapp’s men were the more hard-working, dynamic and creative side for large chunks of the contest and would have won had it not been for the brilliance of Sergio Agüero.

The striker twice brought City back on level terms and while his first goal was controversial – given he was marginally offside when collecting Mangala’s long pass and handled the ball before striking it past Rob Green – the second was utterly admirable, with the home defence twisted, turned and outdone by a sublime performer.

Agüero has 12 goals in 11 league appearances this season, which to put into context is two more than the rest of the City squad between them. Quite simply, he is regularly rescuing a team who are lacking assurance in defence, authority in midfield and, Agüero aside, decisiveness in attack.

“As long as Sergio scores that is good, but we have a lot of good players who can do it,” insisted the right-back Bacary Sagna. “We trust each other, we want to do well and succeed for the club and the fans. We will come back to our best.”

Pellegrini will hope for the same and he can take heart from the same stage last season when City had two fewer points than they do now, 19 compared with 21. However, he may also be aware that in their last title-defending campaign, the 2012-13 season, City had 25 points after 11 games and were two points off the leaders, Manchester United. (They are currently eight points off leaders Chelsea). Mancini was not able to restore City to the summit and having also failed in Europe, he was sacked. The omens are not great for his successor.

For QPR, there was much encouragement to take from this match, and for no one more so than Charlie Austin. The striker was a threat throughout and having seen two goals disallowed within seconds of each other early on, he did get on the scoresheet with a neat finish on 21 minutes before assisting the hosts’ second, via Martín Demichelis. Cue talk of an England call-up for the 25-year-old, who has six goals in 10 league appearances.

“If he keeps scoring goals that does all the talking for him,” said the QPR captain, Joey Barton. “And it sounds like I’m slagging Rickie Lambert off, and I’m not, but if you’re not playing for Liverpool who can’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo, how do you get into the England squad?”

Austin was the scourge of City and as their manager returned to Manchester it was another Smiths track which best summed up his mood: Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.

Teams

QPR: 
Green, Isla, Caulker, Dunne, Yun, Vargas, Sandro (Barton 46), Henry, Fer, Austin, Zamora

Unused subs: Hill, Phillips, McCarthy, Onuoha, Kranjcar, Hoilett    Bookings: Sandro, Isla, Dunne, Vargas

Manchester City: Hart, Sagna, Clichy, Demichelis, Mangala, Fernando, Fernandinho (Dzeko 64 (Lampard 68)), Nasri (Milner 74), Navas, Yaya Toure, Aguero      Unused subs: Caballero, Zabaleta, Jovetic, Boyata    Bookings: Nasri, Sagna

Referee: Mike Dean        Att:25,000

Manchester City 1 CSKA Moscow 2          Euro Disaster
Wednesday 5th November 2014 : GYKO at the Etihad

Manchester City put on a pre-match firework display for their fans, which was thoughtful of them, as there was no guarantee of anything dazzling or explosive being produced on the pitch once the game started.

Late red cards do not count as pyrotechnic entertainment, sadly, and neither do they advance City’s now almost extinguished hopes of progress.

Their European campaign has been one long disappointment, a whole series of damp squibs. This latest was a pity as the club had successfully taken steps to fill their ground after the criticism that came their way through the empty seats against Roma in the last game, though even the takers of a reduced-price two-for-one ticket offer probably felt like asking for refunds when their side went a goal down in less than two minutes.

At that precise moment an atmosphere which had been building up nicely drained away to leave a stadium as eerily quiet as the one City encountered in Moscow in their behind-closed-doors fixture last month, partly because the defending that led to the softest of set-piece goals had been so naïve, although once the shock subsided the home side were able to reassert themselves quite quickly.

Yaya Touré’s equaliser settled the nerves, an entertainingly open contest developed before half-time, but just as City fans were allowing themselves to get excited, Gaël Clichy gifted the visitors another goal.

This was the night when City’s Champions League campaign was supposed to achieve lift-off. Never mind that Manuel Pellegrini’s Premier League champions are not exactly lighting up the sky, a win would not only have been their first in this season’s competition it would have lifted their qualification hopes.

And these were opponents that City put five goals past last season. Much of the pre-match discussion had centred on whether City would have the firepower to grab the win the situation demanded, whether Touré would be allowed a free attacking role or whether Pellegrini would be left regretting his decision to let Alvaro Negredo go without signing a replacement. Stevan Jovetic does make rather a lightweight foil for Sergio Agüero, as it happens, and he is too frequently injured.

There was also further evidence against Moscow that the muscular energy of James Milner and the pace of Jesús Navas to not quite add up to the guile and invention of the injured David Silva, but the overpowering conclusion from this game is that the attack is not what is letting City down. Some of their defending would have been woeful at Championship level, let alone Champions League. In the first half Clichy in particular seemed to give the ball to opposition players more often than he found his team-mates, while the normally reliable Vincent Kompany was regularly caught out of position.

The first CSKA goal could be considered unlucky from a City point of view since not every referee would have viewed the free-kick milked from Clichy as deliberate handball, though there was still the question of why the marking was so poor from a set piece on the edge of the area that Seydou Doumbia was allowed the simplest of free headers.

The visitors’ second, the one that convinced the home crowd that this was not going to be a splendid recovery but another long night punctuated by errors, was even more unforgivable.

Martin Demichelis had already made a telling intervention to break up a CSKA attack, all Clichy had to do was pick up the loose ball and head upfield with it, or take his time to find someone in a more forward position. Instead he swept the ball carelessly infield without looking, straight to the feet of a grateful Bebras Natcho, who had no trouble playing Doumbia behind an already stretched defence for his second goal of the evening.
Why can’t Manchester City do it in the Champions League? – link to video

It was not even Clichy’s first such mistake, just the worst example of a poor all-round display. Even after going behind a second time the crowd made themselves heard in an effort to lift their side, though perhaps inevitably a few boos were heard as they trooped off at the interval.

In the interests of balance and fairness it should be stated that cries of “Come on, City” could be heard from most sides of the ground in the second half and that Clichy, allowed a chance to redeem himself, went some way to doing that with a recovering tackle to dispossess Doumbia when CSKA were threatening another dangerous break. But it was not enough.

Nothing they did was going to be enough to atone for their first-half lapses. A bullocking run from Touré ended without the penalty he was looking for, a searching cross by Milner just failed to pick out Agüero, Pablo Zabaleta found Milner in the area only to see his team-mate overrun the ball.

It was another frustrating night in a frustrating campaign, but make no mistake, City were not unlucky here. They were outplayed. On their own ground. By CSKA Moscow. Even before they went down to 10 men. Then nine men. The referee did not cover himself in glory with some confusing and contentious decisions in the closing minutes, but defeat was all that City deserved.

If Pellegrini really imagines they can get anywhere near a Champions League final with a team this unreliable and a defence this porous, he probably needs the reality check more than his players.

 

Teams

Manchester City:
Hart, Zabaleta, Demichelis, Kompany (C), Clichy, Toure, Fernando (Dzeko 64mins), Navas (Fernandinho 45mins), Milner, Jovetic (Nasri 45mins), Aguero

Unused subs: Caballero, Sagna, Boyata, Mangala    Bookings: Fernandinho 62mins & 69mins (red card), Toure 81mins (red card), Aguero 89mins

CSKA Moscow: Akinfeev (C), Mário Fernandes, Ignashevich, V.Berezutski, Schennikov, Wernbloom, Dzagoev (Efremov 86mins), Eremenko, Natcho, Musa, Doumbia (Milanov 66mins)

Unused subs: Chepchugov, Berezutski, Nababkin, Cauna, Bazelyuk  Bookings:Wernbloom 27mins, Ignashevich 77mins, Eremenko 78mins

Referee: 
Tasos Sidiropoulos

Manchester City 1 Manchester United 0     United Get Off Lightly
Sunday 2nd November 2014 : GYKO at the Etihad

It was a derby that left Manchester United a long way back in Manchester City’s wing-mirrors and, in the worst moments, straying dangerously close to being their own worst enemy. They had contributed heavily to their own downfall, most glaringly with the senselessness of Chris Smalling’s red card, and they should know by now that Manuel Pellegrini’s team are not the kind of opponents to pass up these kind of handouts.

Smalling’s quick one-two of yellow cards towards the end of the first half had left an air of inevitability about what would follow and, if anything, it was probably a surprise that City restricted themselves to Sergio Agüero’s goal bearing in mind another of United’s defenders, Marcos Rojo, was taken off on a stretcher early in the second half with a dislocated shoulder. It left Louis van Gaal’s team with a back four of Antonio Valencia, Michael Carrick, Paddy McNair and Luke Shaw. Carrick was playing his first football of the season. Valencia is known more as a low-confidence winger and McNair is a 19-year-old who has been fast-tracked from the youth academy after being spotted at Ballyclare Colts. This might not be City at their fully functioning best but it would have been almost implausible if they had not found their way through.

For that Smalling will have to do his time grazing in the scapegoat’s paddock because his contribution here supplied hard evidence of a player lacking the football intelligence that is needed at the highest level. He has previous on that front and it is difficult to find any mitigation for the way he scythed down James Milner when the first rule for a defender on a yellow card is not to dive in unless it is absolutely necessary. Smalling’s first booking had come eight minutes earlier for standing in front of Joe Hart to block the goalkeeper’s kick and it is hard to think of too many occasions in the history of this fixture when one of the players has been so hare-brained – or “stupid”, to use Van Gaal’s description.

Remarkably United’s 10 men almost salvaged an improbable draw during a late, spirited challenge. They showed great competitive courage in that period and there were chances for Robin van Persie, Ángel Di María and Marouane Fellaini to punish City for defending too deeply and not being more clinical with their opportunities at the other end. Yet the truth is that City would probably have been coasting by that point if the referee, Michael Oliver, had not turned down three separate penalties, at least two of which could be accurately described as certainties.

Wayne Rooney spent much of the game remonstrating with Oliver about his own grievances and, in the interest of balance, there were certainly occasions when United had legitimate complaints. Oliver had an erratic and often bewildering afternoon and, just to pick out one incident, the images of Joe Hart putting his forehead uncomfortably close to the official are certainly far from the norm.

Yet the reality is that City had the stronger grievances. United would have been down to nine men if Oliver had made the correct decision when Yaya Touré surged into the penalty area and Rojo, the wrong side of his man, took him down in the last piece of action of the first half. Fellaini had already got away with a risky challenge in the penalty area on Agüero and he was guilty in the second half of the same again. City will feel nonplussed when they review the tape and Pellegrini had to summon all his restraint in the post-match interviews. He did, however, describe it as “unbelievable” and we can only imagine the volume of criticism for Oliver had Agüero’s goal not made it seem more like an irritating sub-plot than the main story.

The breakthrough came after 63 minutes as United’s unorthodox defence desperately tried to hold off a spell of sustained pressure. Gaël Clichy was galloping down the left and, when Touré played the ball between Valencia and Di María, the visitors’ back line was caught out of shape. Clichy picked out Agüero with a low cross and the Argentinian thumped a rising shot past David de Gea.

De Gea had been a difficult goalkeeper to beat, keeping out Agüero and Jesús Navas, during an opening half an hour when there was not a great deal between the teams. At that stage City had found it hard to get any real momentum, with Stevan Jovetic not making any real impression and Touré taking his time to get into the match. It was Smalling’s dismissal that changed everything.

Van Gaal responded by replacing Adnan Januzaj with Carrick and, in fairness, the emergency centre-half did exceedingly well given that he has not played since May. McNair also acquitted himself well after Rojo was injured sliding into a challenge with Martín Demichelis – moments after Fellaini had been guilty of pulling out of one – and Van Gaal was entitled, for the most part, to recognise his team’s personality. “Our problem is we give the ball away too often.”

Hart had to make two splendid saves as Van Persie and Di María took aim and Fellaini should really have done better with a headed chance. City, however, had accumulated many more scoring opportunities, with Milner excelling before his substitution, Touré and Fernando becoming increasingly influential and Navas striking the post when he had the chance to double the lead.

It leaves United contemplating their worst start to a season, with 13 points from 10 games, since Ron Atkinson was sacked at the corresponding stage in 1986. It was City’s sixth win in their last seven league meetings against United, including four in a row for the first time since 1970, and Van Gaal’s expression suggested that he had not accepted Smalling’s apology. Smalling had been “very humble”, according to Van Gaal, but there was no sympathy here. “Not so smart,” as the Dutchman put it.

Teams

Manchester City: Hart, Zabaleta, Clichy, Demichelis, Kompany, Fernando, Yaya Toure, Navas, Milner (Nasri 69mins), Jovetic (Dzeko 70mins), Aguero (Fernandinho 83mins)

Unused subs: Caballero, Sagna, Boyata, Sinclair   Bookings: Demichelis 59mins, Zabaleta 76mins, Fernando 78mins

Manchester United: De Gea, Valencia, Smalling, Rojo (McNair 55mins), Shaw, Blind, Fellaini, Januzaj (Carrick 42mins), Rooney, Di Maria, van Persie (Wilson 81mins)

Unused subs: Lindegaard, Fletcher, Herrera, Mata, Wilson     Bookings: Blind 27mins, Smalling 30mins & 37mins (sent-off)  

Referee: Michael Oliver     Att:45,358

 

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