A Red Letter Day: Spoils of a Title Reverie

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March 8, 2020 was a big day for the Red Devils as the club did a league double over Manchester City for the first time in a decade since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has defeated Pep Guardiola thrice this season in the four derbies they’ve played.

My earliest memory of an exciting Manchester Derby is the 2009/10 derby at Old Trafford when United won over City 4-3 and Michael Owen scored his first Manchester United goal at Old Trafford in the dying minutes of the game to lead Manchester United to a famous triumph. There are several Manchester derby images that have become footballing moments of the decade which include Rooney’s overhead kick, Balotelli’s “Why Always Me” celebration – which turned out to be one of the most embarrassing and humiliating moments in Manchester United’s history and Robin Van Persie’s late free kick winner in his first ever derby.

In recent years we have been presented with some exciting matches between the Manchester teams and an interesting trend in these matchups have been that the home advantage has not counted much for both the teams, thus the away win percentage for both the teams has been uncharacteristically high. The recent United win, right before the league was shut down due to the Covid-19, witnessed a clever display of tactics and finesse by the players of both the teams but the chipped free kick from Bruno Fernandes and the impeccable finish from Antony Martial and the mistake from the City’s goalkeeper, Ederson capitalised by Scott Mctominay to score a splendid goal ensured that Manchester United had the final say. Exciting as that match sounds, I’d like to give an account of the Manchester Derby that happened on April 7, 2018 when United painted the Etihad Stadium red or according to Peter Drury the fans witnessed ‘Shades of Red on this blue-blue day’.

The first derby match of the Premier League that season ended in a 2-1 loss at home for United. Their second Premier League meeting was more than a derby, it was a clash between ‘The Philosopher’ and ‘The Special One’ and to make matters more intense, City would have sealed the Premier League title that day had they defeated United. ‘Noisy Neighbours’ was how Sir Alex referred to City and a decade after him, City reached a stage where they had won numerous trophies and have been a regular contender for the English title since. People rooting for City had turned the jibe back on its head and termed United as the ‘Noisy Neighbour’ of Manchester.

Manchester City was without doubt the most consistent and dominant force in Premier League for the past 10 years and Manchester United barely stood in comparison, but when it comes to derby day, neither of the teams underestimate the potential of the other because of the intensity and passion with which the players of both the teams play. April 7, 2018 was one such day.

This particular Manchester Derby day had a lot of significance in my life because of the fact that it was the day I finally managed get hold of my 1st ever original Manchester United merchandise – a football jersey. Our University was hosting ‘Sukoon’- the annual festival of Hyderabad Central University and every student was busy with one or the other activity associated with the fest. Unaware of the derby match that was yet to commence, I was with my friends and seniors helping with the stalls that have been put up for ‘Sukoon’. At around 10:15 pm one of my friends mocked me by telling that United were set for another defeat that day and that’s how I remembered about the match. I quickly took out my phone and started streaming and Bam! City was already celebrating their first goal. With a cross from Leroy Sane following a corner, their captain, Vincent Kompany scored a bullet header from the centre of the box, right past De Gea and Manchester City had taken the lead. It had always been him on a derby day with a header, from every City-United match that my mind could summon. I could hear my friends taunting me with ‘glorious remarks’ about that goal despite all the commotion. They asked me to spend quality time somewhere else rather than watch a match that United was bound to lose. ‘It is always about the hopes and dreams’, right? I murmured and turned a blind eye towards whatever that was happening around. City was now a step nearer the title according to Martin Tyler. It was not just about Man United winning, for me, it was more about Mourinho winning over Guardiola. The match had resumed and five minutes later Ilkay Gundogan turned and shot after a glorious pivot right inside our penalty box, reducing United’s defence into a joke (to be honest, it was actually a joke). More than my friends, the words of Martin Tyler hurt my feelings. He had just called City the best and remarked that ‘they could hurt from every player, from every angle’. Frankly, they did, because United had a very long way to go from there to win that match. The next twenty five minutes had me sitting in a corner of one of the stalls and watching the match and imploring at times to whichever gods that came to my mind, hoping earnestly that City doesn’t score again. Raheem Sterling, whose drought still continues to date, had three gilt edged chances, all which he contrived to miss somehow. Two of them courtesy of David Silva, the Spanish magician, tip-toeing his way through United’s defence as if he had the ball glued on to his boots and fed Sterling not once, but twice, both which he failed to convert. Sane provided the other chance for Sterling which he tried to curl it with his left foot but it was gobbled up without much effort by David de Gea. Next it was the turn of City’s hugely underrated midfielder, Fernandinho to create; as his cross was headed goal bound by Gundogan, but fortunately for us the ball once gain rested in De Gea’s gloves. The Manchester United players were clueless and they were playing as if their opponents were from some other planet.

The first half came to an end with City leading 2-0. To avoid a humiliating encounter with the Liverpool and Barcelona supporters, I evaded the area where I was watching the match and found another stall where I could watch the match peacefully. It was amusing and ironical because I didn’t fear any City supporters to try and pull my leg because they were practically harmless due to their small demographic influence.

At that particular point of time I faced two problems. I was wearing a Manchester United jersey (I couldn’t come up with any good comebacks against United haters) and the other was that Manchester United was half-way losing a derby, that too a potential thrashing. For all the mocking and humiliation, I had to make myself invisible for the next 45 minutes. Even though I was fatigued by the United style of play and the fact that they were trailing, deep inside I believed that something good could happen.

The second half whistle had been blown and City started to concede many corners. It was a delight to watch United attacking after a disappointing first half. Nemanja Matic provided a ball for Paul Pogba, with which he attempted a shot with his left foot aiming for the bottom left corner from outside the box but it was well saved by Ederson. The match progressed with an attack from City where Sterling tried to assist Gundogan with a pass which he took a shot at goal but the ball came off the crossbar. Alexis Sanchez, who had finally started to strut around with the same confidence and imagination that made him an irrepressible force for Arsenal, began to pull the strings for United. As he cut in from the right wing and looked up for someone in the middle, he saw Pogba making a darting run and sent the ball in. Ander Herrera who was at the end of Sanchez’s cross  provided a fancy assist by chesting the ball forward to Pogba and he found the back of the net by lifting it gently over the out rushing Ederson. The hopes of every Manchester United fan skyrocketed, reaching the zenith and our happiness touched the peak with Pogba scoring ‘on hostile territory’. It seemed like Mourinho’s words during the half time break succeeded to have sparked off a style of inventive and aggressive brand of football which up until that moment United had not unleashed. Two minutes in, Sanchez provided another lofted through ball into the centre of the box which was headed by Pogba into the bottom left corner and United had their equalizer. Pogba had scored a brace in two minutes. ‘In a flash the scene had changed” “Shades of red in this blue-blue day” Peter Drury’s first-class commentary evoked goose bumps in me. Sanchez had finally revealed his true self, with his part in both goals shining through. Jesse Lingard then tried a left-footed shot from outside the box with a ball that was provided by Sanchez but he couldn’t find the target. The match then moved into a game of physique and stamina. A lot of fouls were committed and Sterling was shown a yellow card. David Silva won a free kick in the attacking half for a foul committed by Matic. Gundogan attempted yet another shot but was far away from hitting the target. As the match was hanging in balance, City conceded an unnecessary free kick in a dangerous territory and Alexis Sanchez stepped up to deliver the set-piece. The time was creeping on to 70 minutes on the clock and there was a sense of imminent danger. Sanchez dipped in a hopeful ball into the “no man’s land” putting City defenders and goalkeeper in a spot of dilemma. Chris Smalling, who had a horrid game up until then thumped the ball in leaving Ederson fleet footed as the ball smashed on to the back of the net and Manchester United had returned from their ruins. The red end of the stadium erupted along with millions of fans across the globe, with me being one of those honoured lot.

That turnaround by Manchester United had been stellar. I stormed out of the stall and tried to find my fellow United fans and let them know of what was happening. We started to chant ‘Glory Glory Man-United’ even though the festival ground had a deafening DJ going on in the background. Manchester United’s history is studded with many a glorious comebacks but this one was ‘amaze balls’. I was aware that the match wasn’t over. City could score anytime, but three goals scored at Etihad, taking the lead after trailing by two goals, it most certainly was heavenly.

Guardiola decided to send in the cavalry as De Bruyne and Gabriel Jesus stepped on for City along with Aguero a few minutes later as the “bald genius’ tried to salvage the match and his team’s honour. The match became more physical. Manchester City had to win to be crowned League winners on derby day and Mourinho was using all the tricks up his sleeve to ensure that didn’t happen. Fouls on both the sides were frequent and Fernandinho was shown a yellow card followed by Aguero and Pogba. The last 15 minutes saw City pushing higher up the match, hoping for a misstep from their rivals, paving way for many chances, one of which was denied by Ashley Young committing a really bad foul on Aguero. He somehow got away with it, even without a card and it indeed was one of United’s sunny days, because that foul would have led to a penalty or even a red card any other occasion. Aguero was denied a goal towards the dying minutes of the game by a remarkable save from De Gea, who too rose to the occasion in the 2nd half. Jose Mourinho displayed his vast tactical experience with some astute and impactful substitutions as Marcus Rashford, Scott McTominay and Victor Lindelof came in at different intervals in that last 15 minutes. Sterling once again missed a golden opportunity when he hit the upright with a left footed shot from very close range which had been followed after a corner that was taken by Nicolas Otamendi. Someone had definitely chanted a good-luck charm on United post half-time, commented one of my friends with a huge sigh of unhappiness.

The injury time saw 3 yellow cards for the City players and their frustration was well evident from their body language. At the 97th minute the referee blew the final whistle and Manchester United had won at the Etihad ‘spoiling City’s party‘ or with “boots on the fruits of the ‘would-be’ Champions” of England.

Manchester City just couldn’t hold on to their lead from the first half and the third goal of Manchester United gave their defence an embarrassing experience by leaving Smalling unmarked. It was more of a repetition of history as Smalling had scored a similar goal in a previous derby encounter. That win was so important for every Manchester United fan because Manchester City couldn’t win the title by winning over Manchester United.

 

A derby victory at City’s home and that too with an incredible comeback securing 3 points against the table toppers and denying them the chance to lift the trophy at home – for me there could not have been a better feeling which bolstered my spirits and fed my ego. I am always happy to share any United victory as a memorable football match be it the comeback at the Parc des Princes or the Champions League of 1999, but Mourinho’s Manchester United winning over Guardiola’s City at Etihad provided a different kind of happiness and pride which I guess, can be surpassed only by a win over Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool at Anfield.

Several matches that can define the ‘genius’ of footballers and managers and the idea of a ‘beautiful game’, charted out as the best or the most memorable football matches but when it comes to identifying ‘memorable’ matches and matches that one keep close to their hearts have a different dynamic altogether. I don’t think this match has had the specifications for a beautiful attacking game or ‘tiki-taka’ or any other style of play that ‘entertained’ all football fans equally for that matter, but it is a memory that I hold close to my heart.

Glory Glory Manchester United!

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