MAN CITY: James, Jihai, Dunne (Onuoha 69), Distin, Jordan, Sinclair, Barton, Ireland, Riera (Musampa 77), Cole (Fowler 77), Vassell.
Subs Not Used: Sibierski, Croft.
MAN UTD: Van der Sar, Neville, Ferdinand, Silvestre, Evra (Smith 45), Ronaldo, Fletcher (Saha 71), O’Shea (Richardson 86), Giggs, Rooney, van Nistelrooy.
Subs Not Used: Howard, Brown.
We were sick of the facts and figures prior to the match, and I’m sure Sir Alex Ferguson was too. Nine City managers have tried to dent Sir Alex championship hopes during his time at United; only two have beaten him; etc etc. But the only facts that matter are that 10-man Manchester United suffered a horror defeat that must now rule out any hopes of catching Chelsea.
The Manchester United boss claimed the atmosphere at City’s plush new home is nowhere near as intimidating as Maine Road. Something Stuart Pearce was quick to pick up on: ‘Thank you Sir Alex. You’ve just wound up our fans, and I’m sure they will make a lot of noise today. You’ve done the job for me’.
But it wasn’t the fans that caused the damage. Trevor Sinclair and Darius Vassell took advantage of slack defending to put the hosts into a clear lead at the break, and it was only when Ruud van Nistelrooy did damage 15 minutes from time that there was hope of memorable pull-back. Some could say the sending off of Cristiano Ronaldo for a wild lunge at Andy Cole changed the match. But that just added to the misery.
The arrival of Robbie Fowler from the bench just signalled more misery for Ferguson’s side – and the man who revels in waving five fingers at United fans to signify the number of Liverpool’s European Cup triumphs, finished off United’s 11-match Premiership unbeaten run in injury-time.
There have been some pretty significant lows in this season for United, notably the Champions League losses to Lille and Benfica – but few to rank alongside this debacle. Beaten 4-1 on this ground two seasons ago and 3-1 on their last visit to Maine Road 12 months previously, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side melted into near non-existence.
All over the field there were too many under-performing United players, and ‘united’ they certainly were not.
Ronaldo displayed all the tricks but precious little end product; Van Nistelrooy had one good touch all match; Rio Ferdinand was brushed off the ball with ridiculous ease by Vassell, and Rooney was lost at sea.
Then there is Mikael Silvestre.
The French defender has long since given the impression of a man out of his depth. At no stage did Silvestre look comfortable in dealing with the combined threat of Cole and Vassell, and it was his blunder which gifted the Blues their second goal.
Amid the carnage, it was hardly surprising United new-boy Patrice Evra looked ill at ease.
Ferguson wants to make wholesale changes to the side, and he might have expected more from the former Monaco man who was comprehensively outplayed by Sinclair and eventually replaced at half-time. But players need time to bed, and was this the right game to throw in a newcomer? The game proved too big for him.
Evra was certainly conspicuous by his absence when Sinclair fired City in front just after the half-hour.
It was hardly a goal out of the science manual, just a straightforward matter of desire as Stephen Ireland reacted first to reach the knockdown when Gary Neville half-cleared a Joey Barton cross.
Ireland prodded the ball on – and Sinclair, unmarked, swivelled on the edge of the six-yard box and smashed a volley into the bottom corner.
United had one chance to equalise when Ronaldo finally found a killer pass and slipped Wayne Rooney through. One of three men – alongside Ryan Giggs and Edwin van der Sar – exempt from criticism for their dismal first-half efforts, Rooney galloped into the area but could not beat David James with his low finish.
Within minutes, City had doubled their advantage. Yet again, there was nothing particularly special about the move.
But when Sinclair beat Evra in an aerial battle to win James’ long punt downfield it was the blue shirts who were on their toes. Cole nudged the ball on; Silvestre missed it, and Vassell drove home. It was easy, as the City fans were quick to remind their United counterparts who were squirming in their seats.
Ferguson’s decision to introduce Alan Smith at the break seemed a clear admission his midfield was too weak to counter Barton’s strong running, and it was probably no coincidence United had improved in the second half until Ronaldo was sent off. The Portuguese youngster took the sorry walk down the tunnel, accompanied by security guards and the venom of a few thousand City voices bellowing down his ear.
Thirteen years ago, the Red Devils had also found themselves two goals adrift of City at the interval. On that occasion, they rallied to win.
Had Rooney or Ronaldo managed to find the target with half-chances not long after the re-start, another famous comeback might have been on the cards. But by the time van Nistelrooy rifled home his 18th goal of the campaign, there were only 15 minutes left – and the visitors were down to 10 men.
The miracle recovery never became anything more than highly unlikely, and it was left to Fowler to administer the last rites on any vestige of a United title challenge.