A shiver of suspense passed through Old Trafford when news came through that Marcello Lippi was to hold a news conference after the game, flanked by Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United's chief executive, David Gill. Theories abounded, not least as there was talk last summer that
It turned out to be far more mundane: the announcement of a match, on March 13, against a European Select XI (managed by Lippi) partly to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome. It was all a bit bizarre, particularly when a Uefa spokesman tried to generate interest by revealing that David Beckham would be invited. The organisers will have to try harder than that if they are to capture the imagination of the average Old Trafford match-goer. Beckham's status in these parts is such that supporters now sing a rather malicious song comparing him unfavourably with Cristiano Ronaldo.
An exhibition match will always attract spectators but United's followers should have more pressing issues on their minds, come March, than a game that risks injuries and could have been held out of season. Iro
As City's supporters are perpetually reminded, it is 32 years since they last beat United on their own ground and the evidence from the 135th Mancunian derby is that Old Trafford has rediscovered its old aura - that intoxicating combination of size, history and fear that can conjure up mistakes from usually reliable opponents and, in some cases, leave them fearing the worst before a ball has been kicked.
If visiting teams are to stand any chance at Old Trafford, the secret is to quieten the crowd, nullify United's early threat and build from those foundations.
If their defenders had a harrowing time, when it came to breaking down the walls of the Premiership's meanest defence the forwards were undermined by the presence of such immobile strikers as Bernardo Corradi and Georgios Samaras. The team in blue did not lack endeavour but there was a conspicuous deficiency in guile and they did not flourish until the introduction of Stephen Ireland at half-time.
Pearce detected a gathering foreboding among the home support then but an onslaught of the United goal never materialised. Ronaldo put the matter beyond doubt and Corradi brought ignominy on himself with a penalty-seeking dive that earned him a second yellow card instead.
It is seldom wise to open the losers' dressing-room door after a derby. They should be allowed to go quietly and like Alex Ferguson after a 5-1 defeat at
Yet reflecting on defeat in a corridor at Old Trafford, Stuart Pearce stood tall. With the match lost, Bernardo Corradi made an attempt to win a penalty that by the standards of his predecessor as a
The trouble is, neither Corradi, nor his strike partner, Georgios Samaras, have put the ball in the back of the net with much regularity. Between them, they have scored four Premiership goals, compared to the 16 put away by Wayne Rooney and Louis Saha this season.
The goals United scored were ruthlessly exploited errors from the usually solid defensive pairing of Sylvain Distin and Richard Dunne. But for a fine debut performance from Andreas Isaksson, Rooney, who played with an earthy passion, might have had a hat-trick and Manchester United would have secured the crushing victory their play did not quite merit.
For a side who Pearce believes are passing a football more smoothly than Arsenal, United produced an uneven, sometimes stuttering display. In the dozen minutes between Hatem Trabelsi's shot cannoning into the net from Edwin van der Sar's crossbar and Cristiano Ronaldo's emphatic finish, there was a danger Manchester United might be held to a third successive derby draw at Old Trafford. And in what has become a long-distance sprint with
Ferguson detected tiredness in his team, which since they were essentially the same one that had fought their way through the emotionally taxing win over Benfica on Wednesday night was to be expected.
Interviewed by Sky after the game, the United manager accused the television company of hurting the club by scheduling the derby for a lunchtime kick-off on Saturday, a remark which somehow failed to make it when the station reported the match on their website.
No prizes for guessing which of these teams took the field accompanied by 11 mascots from
As well as the millions watching around the world, almost 76,000 were inside Old Trafford to see United surge nine points clear, for a day at least, at the top of the Barclays Premiership. By the turn of the year, the club will have welcomed more than one million paying customers through the gate this season.
It is probably just as well, given the enormous debt taken on as a result of the Glazer family's takeover, but these are the type of figures that David Gill, the chief executive, had in mind when he made a restrained response to Peter Kenyon's recent claim that Chelsea hope to be the world's biggest club by 2014.
That appears to be the way of it at Old Trafford: grand statements at times, but even bigger actions, such as three crucial victories in eight days over Middlesbrough, Benfica and
After the annus horribilis of 2005, the past 12 months have brought a renaissance for United and, above all, for Sir Alex Ferguson, whose reign seemed to be lurching towards an unsatisfactory conclusion this time last year. “Others might be surprised at that, but we're not surprised and the Glazers aren't surprised,” Gill said. “I don't know how long (he will remain manager). For as long as he's feeling fit and motivated and we're doing well. It's not an issue.”