MATCH REPORT – Manchester United 4 City 3

The Premier League – Saturday 1st November 2008

It’s deep into stoppage time at Old Trafford, City are laying siege to Manchester United’s penalty area, the red clad daytrippers from Norway, Sri Lanka and, err, Norwich are whistling for the games end, and Cristiano Ronaldo, FIFPro World Player Of The Year, is just booting the ball as far as he can to ease the pressure caused by the tenacious Tigers, fighting to restore parity.

Once again, Hull City are challenging your perceptions of reality, like LSD or a Salvador Dali work, or that CGI-laden film where a bullet threatens the proposed adoption of deprived children in Lesotho, North Korea and Brigg, only to deviate from its straight line and bend around Angelina Jolie‘s head. On this occasion, reality didn’t break as it did at Arsenal, but it bent and wobbled a fair bit before taking a more familiar shape. It was wondrous nonetheless.

The fixture list computer was fairly kind to the Tigers early in the season, but now it cruelly pitted us against both Champions League finalists within the space of four days. Runners up Chelsea efficiently brushed us aside on Wednesday and here we faced the winners of the Moscow shoot out, a Manchester United side that are simultaneously champions of England and of Europe.

This was our first visit to Old Trafford in 21 years, and a ground that was once quite aesthetically pleasing has had more reconstructive work than Simon Weston and now resembles a giant fax machine. Outside the stadium, people from all corners of the globe posed for photo opportunities, this being football’s equivalent of Disneyland, Nike swooshed jerseys are the mouse’s ears, prawn sandwiches the ice cream sundaes. You could tell the locals from the tourists, they had embittered, snarled faces as opposed to the wide eyed, toothy grinned expressions on those here for one time only.

The PA chap mangled our players’ names, heralding: Myhill: Dawson, Turner, Zayatte, McShane; Marney, Boateng (Captain for the day in Ian Ashbee’s suspension enforced absence), Deiberson Geovanni (his Sunday name), Hughes; King and Cousin (4-4-2).

When announcing the substitutes Aussie Richard Garcia’s name was given the Spanish treatment (Gar-thee-a, eth-eth-eth) and Caleb Folan’s given name was pronounced ‘Kal-Eb’ as if he’s Superman’s half-brother or summat. No place on the bench for Deano after his week of flirtation with Leeds.

United kicked off playing towards the Stretford End, the Tiger Nation were corralled into the south-east corner of the ground and given very little leg room, “Stand up if you’re Hull City” was sang to temporarily relieve cramp as much as get behind the lads. The silent majority in the home stands were soon given reason to stand too as the redshirts took an early lead. Gary Neville’s direct pass from near the half way line was studded backwards to Berbatov by Ronaldo, the Bulgarians drilled ball into the box was neatly controlled by Ronaldo who, watched by Dawson and Boateng, span and hit a low, left footed drive beyond Myhill and in via the upright. Just three minutes in and we’ve conceded, bah!

Geovanni went for power rather than placement from a free kick some 25 yards out but it was perpetually rising and went into the stands. City have looked fearless in the early stages of this season but as against Chelsea in midweek we looked a bit paralysed with respect for the opposition. Rooney evaded Zayatte’s marking to fire a shot narrowly over. On the ball we looked panicked, the usual fluidity was absent and no one was prepared to find space for a pass, Geovanni played a long ball into touch and when Boateng looked for McShane to advance, he too passed out of bounds when the fox-follicled Irishman remained steadfast in defence. City fans greeting passing moves with ‘ole’s didn’t get to do so for long, a whiff of fear preceded each misplaced pass to an opponent. Turner went into the referee’s notepad for a mistimed lunge that got Nani’s ankles rather than the ball.

After twenty minutes of us passing three times between ourselves and then sending the fourth to a United man, we pulled the game level. McShane lofted the ball towards Marlon King who had his shirt tugged by Vidic, giving City a free kick. Andy Dawson whipped in a ball, oblique to the goal line and Daniel Cousin rose in front of Evra to flick the ball across goal and beyond Van der Sar’s dive and in. 1-1, and the Tiger Nation revelled in the incredulity.

The parity didn’t last long though, from a City attack in which Dawson sprayed the ball to Marlon King into the box, his flicked header for Geovanni was intercepted by Vidic, who hit Rooney with a long pass to the centre circle. A lay off to Berbatov had City backtracking and while we covered him, Nani and Ronaldo, it left space for Micheal Carrick who received a pass and advanced to the edge of the box where he squirted a shot between McShane’s legs and across Myhill for 2-1.

Each City passing move led to a United counter attack now, Myhill blocked a Ronaldo howitzer and had to be alert to foil the Portuguese again after Rooney played him through. Manchester United are a sublimely talented side but think they shouldn’t have to fashion that many chances on goal themselves and demand penalties. A lot. Moaning gargoyle Gary Neville reckoned he should have had one when he couldn’t get to a no-look-flick from Ronaldo (a move that will probably make FIFA 2010) and Dawson just stood in between Neville and the ball while Myhill picked it up.

Wayne Rooney sprinted beyond Zayatte on to Berbatov’s deft headed pass and finished but a static Bo in our goal told him it wouldn’t count. Offside. City were a bit disjointed at this point, the gap between Geovanni, the advance midfielder, and the two forwards was a yawning chasm and George Boateng, though defending spiritedly, was a little too far back and that invited runs at our defence.

Bryan Hughes, anonymous thus far, attempted the tamest volley in football history, oddly striking a Vidic clearance with the outside of his foot rather than the top and the ball arced gently into Van der Sar’s hands.

Wayne Rooney screamed for a penalty after Dawson recovered from having the ball knocked past him to poke the ball behind for a corner. Rooney may well be a great player, but he’s also a petulant, brooding twat with a sense of entitlement, and it’s unlikely that his manager actively discourages that attitude. No matter that it wasn’t a penalty when City are defending corners as they are today, Nani crossed into the box, and though four Tigers jumped up (and they just did that, they didn’t defend the cross, they just jumped up) Cristiano Ronaldo was allowed to head towards goal, and though Proper Bo got a hand to it, his touch just punched the ball against the roof of the net. 3-1. Bah. And that was the half.

The hosts dropped the pace of the game a bit after the restart, with a two goal lead they had little need for urgency, they did have ample opportunities to increase that lead though. A long Gary Neville throw down the line caught our rearguard napping and Rooney ran on to it, turning to fire a low cross into the box, Turner cut out the cross but couldn’t stop Berbatov who yoinked the free ball and rifled a shot that scraped the far post. Berbatov squared for Ronaldo, on a hat trick, who wastefully shot wide right, albeit not by much. The gelled narcissist then ambled from the half way line to the edge of the box unmolested and his threaded through ball for Berbatov was intercepted and cleared by Turner. We were grateful for such profligacy.

Zayatte was caught flat footed by Anderson’s pass as he alone tried to play Ronaldo offside, but he managed to get back to deflect the shot wide for a corner. Bryan Hughes outmuscled Rio Ferdinand in our box, but boneheadedly conceded a corner with the ball at his feet, a corner that we defended abysmally. Rooney fired the set piece into the area and Vidic creeped in from the back unmarked and sidefooted in United’s fourth goal. For all of the hosts attacking talent, it was frustrating to see us undone by set pieces when we’ve defended them pretty well up till this game of the campaign. It’s as if fear of the opponents has eroded our ability to do the even the simple things well.

With Manchester United 4-1 up and regularly creating chances to score more, it seemed like the final 30 minutes would be an exercise in damage limitation for the Tigers. However going three down signalled the start of an unlikely comeback from City. The key was the removal of Bryan Hughes (who had failed to make any impression in this game, aside from cheaply giving away a corner from which we conceded) and the entrance of Bernard Mendy.

The Frenchman trotted on wearing a long sleeved compression jersey under a short sleeved City shirt, sporting some acrylic black gloves with HCAFC inside an amber band across the dorsum. Few people could pull this look off, but Mendy has that air of cult hero about him, the crazy Superman dive at Blackburn, the disco dancing after the Arsenal and Tottenham wins, the doesn’t-appear-to-know-entirely-what-he’s-doing-when-running-with-the-ball style, and it just worked. I <3 Bernard Mendy, and after his half an hour cameo at Old Trafford, so did the entire Tiger Nation.

United made a change too, Nani was replaced by Carlos Tevez, who, wearing a thick headband that gave him crazy hair and with a face and neck covered in scars, looked like one of the cast of Thriller. Someone should have told him Halloween was yesterday. Anyway, back to City suddenly becoming awesome…

The electronic billboards around the ground briefly showed an advert for the ball being used in the game, the Total 90 Omni Hi-Vis, which translates as ’a yellow version of the ball used so far this season‘. The animated ad finishes with the words ’More goals please’ and as soon as this ad was done Bernard Mendy took it upon himself to honour the request. George Boateng pinged a ball towards Mendy at the right corner of the 18 yard box and as Evra star jumped at it in an attempt to head it back to Edwin Van der Sar, Mendy nipped in and then chipped the ball over the advancing Dutch ‘keeper and it dropped beneath the post and over the line, although Vidic’s attempted clearance made it hard to tell that City had scored from the other end of the ground. When it finally sunk in that it had been given and it was 4-2, the Tiger Nation was exultant, we had hope. “We’re gonna win 5-4” we sang cheekily.

Michael Turner brought down Carrick on the edge of the area, there wasn’t much contact, Turner just ran across him. Nervy times for Turner though who was already on a yellow card, thankfully the ref figured a telling off was enough, we were also thankful when Anderson, Predator dreadlocks and all, fired the free kick over. Ryan Giggs replaced Michael Carrick.

Dean Marney won the ball in the centre circle and fed Geovanni who sped towards goal, and with redshirts backing off he was invited to have a go, he did, but this long range effort was pretty much straight at Van der Sar. Cousin was being snapped at by Wayne Rooney and went down cheaply after a few of the other digs weren’t deemed fouls and Rooney went ballistic, slamming the ball against the ground and gesturing wildly in protest at the free kick, illustrating the increasing frustration United were feeling as City harassed their way back into the game.

Bo Myhill made a superb save to deny Rooney at the other end before what looked like the entire City outfield ran Berbatov out of bounds with the ball. City were building up a head of steam though they were plagued by the same passing deficiencies that proved costly in the first half. Gorgeous George and Zayatte got into a right mess and set Berbatov racing at goal, he laid off to Rooney in the box and somehow, McShane and Myhill combined to quell the danger.

And then, Mendy struck again. Giggs crossed in to the box but the ball was firmly headed away by Boateng to Marney who sent Mendy, still inside our half, down the left touchline. Racing goalward he took on a back peddling Rio Ferdinand and putting the ball past the England defender, forced Rio into wrestling and tripping him to the ground. Penalty! Incroyable!

I’ve never thought cucumbers sufficiently chilled enough to be used as an analogy for coolness, so I won’t… Geovanni stepped up to take the spot kick, and as cool as a penguins knackers, fired it in. Van der Sar correctly guessed it was going to his right, buy Geo’s shot was so well placed he had no chance of stopping it. Bloody hell. Sacre Bleu, etc. It’s 4-3, and it’s all getting as mindbending as Dali’s floppy clocks. (I said clocks!)

Eight minutes left then, and it’s City, against all the odds, against all claims of sanity, looking the more likely to score. Pity Alex Ferguson’s chewing gum at this point. A clash of heads between Gary Neville and Peter Halmosi (who’d come on for Marlon King) led to a drop ball that was contested just a little too fiercely by that angry cock Wayne Rooney who saw yellow for his over enthusiasm, hacking at both Boateng and Dawson. It’s good to see drop balls contested in an age of health and safety conscious meffery which usually sees them dropped to one player with no one around, but booting anything that moves isn’t on and he could have been booked twice for each hack, let alone for the stream of invective aimed at Mike Dean, but the ref chose to ignore the dissent.

Giggs forced a great save from Myhill with a curling shot and Berbatov hit the rebound just wide. Oblivious, City pressed on for an equaliser and in the ensuing melees, United were content to just clear their lines, Ronaldo eschewing technical trickery for an old fashioned hoof downfield. Though momentum was on our side, time was against us, and our late effort began a little too late. United held on, they got the points, we got the pride.

There are a whole host of things you could legitimately criticise about City’s performance, we were sloppy when defending corners, our short passing game was dreadful and created more chances for them than it did us, we looked a bit in awe of them in the first half and they could have had 6 or 7 goals, but stuff all that. All that stuff is fodder for the dickheads who will criticise City just for not winning every game they play, who never seem content unless they’re tearing strips of our club. Screw them, let’s hope their arteries harden. Who, unless it’s with a huge slice of irony, expects us to get anything from Chelsea and Manchester United?

City have just taken it to the champions of England and Europe and scored three goals at Old Trafford, when they call it the Theatre of Dreams those dreams aren’t meant to be ours, they’re those of half of Ireland, the there-to-be-seen-and-eat-vol-au-vents crowd and embittered hoi-polloi Mancs. When even cock kick craving BBC hoon Mark Lawrenson concedes we’re good enough to stay up based on a defeat it’s not the time to moan, it’s a time to revel in our new found, hard earned nationwide respect.

And maybe us winning at Manchester United would have been too much a loss of reality to take, the floppy clock that breaks the camels back. That could lead to full on psychosis, so maybe changing perceptions is enough for now. Next year however…

Les Motherby

Ratings:- Myhill 7; McShane 7; Turner 7; Zayatte 6.5; Dawson 8; Marney 6.5; Hughes 5; Boateng 7; Cousin 7.5; King 6.5; Geovanni 7.5; Mendy 8; Halmosi 6.5