And he was right. In fact, the Manchester City manager got an awful lot right on the day. Mancini’s team selection and tactics were spot on. There may have only been three points at stake, but the result was a firm indicator that the blue half of Manchester are headed in the right direction. Bookmakers have already installed them as favourites to maintain their position at the top of the league and win their maiden Premier League title.
Oddly enough, it was the home side that started the game as the brighter of the two teams. Wayne Rooney threatened to orchestrate proceedings as he so often does, with a magnificent swept fifty yard pass to Ashley Young, demonstrating once again, his extraordinary range of passing.
Not many clear chances were fashioned however and United were duly punished by Balotelli’s precise finish into the corner of the net. His subsequent t-shirt celebration was humorous, yet still harshly punished by a booking. The Italian striker remains as volatile and unpredictable as ever, yet on current form he increasingly looks like he will be an important player for the club.
Mancini’s decision to play James Milner ahead of Samir Nasri for his work rate was fully vindicated by the former Aston Villa man’s industrious performance in both attack and defence. He worked tirelessly to nullify the threat Ashley Young posed and he set up Balotelli’s second goal with a cross from the right after being played in with a clever ball by the outstanding David Silva.
The diminutive Spaniard exposed the deficiencies in the Manchester United midfield and back four time and time again, as he ruthlessly picked off passes at will. Drifting into pockets of space between the back four and midfield, the ineffective duo of Anderson and Fletcher found it impossible to track his movement as the playmaker had a hand in almost every goal. How United could do with a player like him.
In particular his flicked and half volleyed pass to Edin Dzeko for City’s sixth goal was evocative of Diego Maradona’s pass to Claudio Caniggia at Italia 90. Eye of a needle accuracy combined with outrageous skill. Silva must surely be front runner for the Player of the Season award already.
Man of the match Micah Richards had a tremendous game at full back, as his power and pace coupled with Milner’s tracking back caused United endless problems down their left hand side. It certainly wasn’t a game Patrice Evra will want to remember for very long, as he was continually exposed. The ease in which City scored their second and third goals from crosses from the right hand side are testimony to this.
Jonny Evans’ red card certainly changed the game, yet it was deserved as he committed the defender’s cardinal sin by finding himself the wrong side of the striker. Mark Clattenburg was left with little choice. City’s numerical advantage merely served to increase their stronghold on the midfield, as they passed their way to creating chances at will in the last five minutes.
In truth, by the end it was a humiliation and the home fans were almost begging for the final whistle. Completely unchartered territory for supporters that had previously seen their side win nineteen games in a row at home and had not suffered a reverse since the defeat to Chelsea eighteen months ago.
However, it would obviously be foolish to write Manchester United off after a single game. There is famously no greater side in adversity than a Ferguson-managed one, and previous heavy home defeats such as Liverpool’s 4-1 triumph at Old Trafford still saw United go on to claim the title that season. Similarly, they lost 5-0 at St James Park to Newcastle in 1996, and 5-0 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in 1999. However in both seasons, just like in 2009, they ended up as champions.
Curiously, after the 5-0 defeat to Newcastle United, United trailed Kevin Keegan’s table topping side by five points, just as they do to Mancini’s side at present. There is undoubtedly still a long way to go in what promises to be an explosive title race, but the noisy neighbours are certainly heading in the right direction.