The Inspiral Carpets reverberated around the Etihad bowl prior to kick-off and it has felt superior to be City in Manchester. Not right now.
Having wrecked City’s title celebrations at The Etihad in 2018, United ended their 21-game winning run and any signs of inferiority were masked for a day.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will not preside over a championship challenge this season but was not shy in challenging Pep Guardiola in his own technical area. City unsportingly refused to play the ball back with Marcus Rashford unable to continue and Solskjaer twice bypassed the fourth official Mike Dean to step into Guardiola’s zone.
Solskjaer had the first and final word, ending the debate with a diplomatic fist-bump and United need that zeal if they are to lay a glove on City across 38 games next season, rather than 90 minutes. Solskjaer has four wins in eight against Guardiola.
How apt Luke Shaw netted the crucial second goal, for United’s victory was underpinned by their defence. It has been their stronger suit in recent weeks and Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire reserved their best performances of the season for the home of the champions-elect. United have a new number one in Dean Henderson and Raheem Sterling has never looked unlikelier of scoring against United up against the impregnable Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
Lindelof has a habit of producing his outstanding performances against the elite and this was another entrant for that pantheon. Maguire has rarely played better for United and City’s lack of a quality number nine was patent up against the United captain. City resorted to sticking John Stones up front in the final 10 minutes.
The best back four in the Premier League was present, only the left-back belonged to United. Joao Cancelo, touted as a possible player of the year, was deceived by Shaw’s snake hips on the halfway line and the indefatigable full-back relentlessly, exchanging passes with Marcus Rashford and cutely steering the ball past a motionless Ederson.
The United coaches leapt in the air. Those seats, usually occupied by Blues, were clattered by Reds. The voluble City staff and substitutes to their left quietened.
Bruno Fernandes may keep the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year statue on his mantelpiece but Shaw has been United’s more consistent performer. Even after Riyad Mahrez put him on his backside he rallied to leave the cultured Cancelo for dead.
It was like watching Peter Schmeichel and Denis Irwin in their pomp. Henderson did not claim the assist but his purposeful throw to Shaw on the halfway line accelerated United’s attack and Shaw, buccaneering all season, tallied his first league goal since August 2018 with a precision reminiscent of his manager.
“Good throw, Dean Henderson,” Edwin van der Sar tweeted. Henderson’s time-wasting irked the City staff, which will only endear him more to Reds. Henderson has performed in his previous auditions and it now seems unthinkable he will drop back to the bench whenever David de Gea returns.
Henderson, Rashford and Scott McTominay, all part of the same academy year in 2014, started and four more graduates were on the United bench. Phil Foden was City’s only academy representative and on the bench again. United will always reign over City when it comes to a homegrown quota.
The only time City players stood off United in a frenetic match was when the away coaches arrived, which forced the home players to delay their entrance. The atmosphere during City’s warm-up was buoyant, perhaps even complacent.
Anthony Martial was the penultimate United player to emerge for the Premier League anthem and was still overtaken by Shaw. That lethargy was misleading, for his impact was immediate and the number nine was clumsily fouled by his opposite number, Gabriel Jesus, after 35 seconds.
The City physio Mark Sertori shouted ‘Go on Eddy’ in a hoarse Mancunian accent, sounding like a fan in the Kippax, as Fernandes approached the ball. Ederson gloved it into the net, coming close enough to convince Kyle Walker to celebrate for a split-second in the stands.
That spared United the embarrassment of going four games without scoring. It also gave Fernandes an early fillip with his first goal against a ‘big six’ side since the 6-1 trouncing by Tottenham in October. It marked Fernandes’s 18th penalty goal for United – as many as Eric Cantona during his four-and-a-half years.
Martial’s selection could have easily lulled City into a false sense of security, what with two goals in his last 15 games – both coming in the 9-0 evisceration of Southampton more than a month ago. The Frenchman meekly placed a one-on-one straight at Ederson at 2-0 but can feel satisfied with a morale-raising display and was a surprising recipient of the man of the match award..
United were fortunate their front-footed start drew the incongruous Jesus inside his own area for their use of the ball on breakaways was wasteful and Rashford ran down alleys marked ‘blind’. Solskjaer patently addressed that at the interval, for United were more incisive and had openings to extend their advantage. Rashford still had the gumption to run back into his own third and halt City’s own breakaway shortly before he made way.
Maguire wellied the ball and then Jesus with a tone-setting tackle, his overzealousness eliciting a yellow card that did not satisfy the incandescent Fernandinho, demanding harsher punishment from the stands. “Yellow! Yellow!” Fernandinho frothed following a foul by Fernandes.
United were so dissatisfied with the Wythenshawe-born Anthony Taylor’s officiating that Solskjaer, Maguire and McTominay vented at Dean following the half-time shrill. Solskjaer craftily waited for Taylor to enter the tunnel before he followed him down, doubtless with some choice words.
He was not the only one Solskjaer confronted.