Reports of Sir Alex Ferguson's departure appear, not for the first time and probably not the last, to be premature. At half time, with Manchester United comfortably ahead, the rumour machine rattled into overdrive about Marcello Lippi's post-match appearance at a press conference alongside
The idea that
United were able to squander abundant chances and still see off a City team who made a contest of this only briefly, for about 10 minutes, after Hatem Trabelsi cracked the goal of the match midway through the second half with a swerving left-footer to make it 2-1.
Such a narrow scoreline was mainly down to United's wastefulness. A two-goal cushion by half time barely reflected the chasm in quality between these neighbours offensively. United's two young cavaliers, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, toyed with City's defence from the off and produced some marvellous flashes.
In the fifth minute, Ronaldo's supply line from the right flank was perfect and Rooney arrived to finish with deadly accuracy. It was the first of many chances for a striker who is drifting into dangerous positions so naturally at the moment. The thought of how he will feed off Henrik Larsson's intelligence when the Swede arrives on loan is exciting for United.
Louis Saha was more off colour, but he still managed to double the lead shortly before the break by bundling in Gabriel Heinze's bobbling cross. City were left cursing lamentable defending from Richard Dunne, who lost Rooney, and Sylvain Distin, whose fresh-air kick was partly responsible for Dunne's confusion. 'We gave goals away cheaply and that was very costly,' rued City manager Stuart Pearce.
It was not entirely one-sided, however, because Micah Richards and Georgios Samaras wasted half-chances, but the second period was mainly a case of more opportunities for United. City's substitute goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson, whose form suggested that Nicky Weaver might struggle to reclaim the position, excelled in denying Rooney on a number of occasions.
Trabelsi's spectacular goal roused hopes of a City revival in the blue corner, but they were not helped with the immediate withdrawal of the powerful Richards with a dead leg. 'We could have turned the screw a bit more,' admitted Pearce.
Any anxiety that United might needlessly jettison precious points were ended six minutes from the end, when Rooney jabbed a pass to Ronaldo, who stabbed in the third. City's appeal for offside did not impress referee Graham Poll.
One can only hope that it finally represented the start of a backlash against the cheats by referees who talk big about punishing villains but rarely do more than wag an admonishing finger. Poll has been vilified for his mistakes both at the World Cup and in recent weeks and missed a date here against
As for Ronaldo, his manager Sir Alex Ferguson claims that he is more sinned against than sinning, or certainly more fouled against and the statistics support that view. Before this game, a remarkable 44 free kicks had been awarded for fouls on Ronaldo, twice as many as most Premiership players and topped only by the 49 given against
The season's 45th free kick against Ronaldo came after just 20 seconds when Joey Barton clattered into him and Claudio Reyna, substitute Stephen Ireland and our old friend Ben Thatcher, who ought to be on an ASBO after his act of GBH against Pedro Mendes of Portsmouth, all took turns to hack him down.
Ronaldo, criticised for the way he won a penalty at
He made the opening goal with a cross that had more curl than a lawn bowls wood, causing Sylvain Distin's attempted clearance to turn into an air shot and leaving Wayne Rooney a routine finish for his 50th Premiership goal.
Fittingly, having picked up the Barclays player of the month award beforehand, Ronaldo applied the coup de grace himself, ending a nervous last 15 minutes for United by tapping in with the outside of his left foot when Rooney returned the compliment with a cross from the right. And to think those two were apparently ready to knock seven bells out of one another after the World Cup.
City last won here in 1974 with Denis Law's famous back heel and their fans, with their giant bananas, seem to be still living in the Seventies in memory of that.
This was, at least, one of the more competitive derbies in this stadium, even though it promised to be another one-sided affair when some appalling City defending, plus some Rooney quick thinking, set up Louis Saha for his 12th goal of the season right on half-time.
Nine points. Roman Abramovich is used to big numbers but he might baulk at the size of the digit attached to Manchester United's points lead at the top of the Premiership. This could not be what the Russian envisaged when he dipped further into his lake of roubles in the summer to add Andriy Shevchenko and Michael Ballack to a side who had won the Premiership two years running. An oddity of the fixture list means that, with
Ronaldo may have been just offside when he scored his goal but deserved something for the puckishness he brought to a fixture in which flair players of lesser fibre have often hidden. United having retained possession patiently, Gary Neville found Wayne Rooney inside the box and Rooney jinked himself a yard of space in front of Sylvain Distin before driving the ball into the six-yard area where Ronaldo, loitering beyond Richard Dunne, cracked a volley past Andreas Isaksson.
“3-1 in your Superbowl,” United fans crowed, throwing City supporters' insults regarding the Glazers back in their faces. Glee gathered when Bernardo Corradi was sent off when, already booked for an elbow on Nemanja Vidic, he attracted another yellow card, following a blatant swoon at the feet of John O'Shea. “The referee got it right,” said Pearce. “I thought our player went down too cheaply and I've had a chat with him about that.”
Ronaldo had Thatcher booked when the only way the poor full-back could imagine stopping his opponent was by shoving him in the chest, but it was City who began running at United. Barton and Claudio Reyna were more eager in the tackle than Paul Scholes and the laid-back Michael Carrick, and Vassell's pace was troubling Neville. A long free-kick saw Corradi and Vidic jump together but miss the ball and Micah Richards got there before Gabriel Heinze to head goalwards and then head the ball again as Rio Ferdinand closed, but it dropped wide.
United had not been dormant following their opener, and the force of a Rooney volley almost knocked Weaver into his own net as he parried it away, but the home team seemed too relaxed about their slender lead.
Louis Saha fattened it on the beat of half-time. Trabelsi dallied by the corner flag and made a poor attempt to find Dunne. Rooney intercepted and fed Heinze, who drove in a shot from a tight angle. His effort flashed across the six-yard box, where Saha arrived and poked the ball against Weaver. Topspin sent it teetering upwards and bouncing across the line.
United were more urgent in the second period and Isaksson, on for Weaver, made his case to resume as City's No 1 when saving point-blank from Rooney after Giggs found the youngster with a volleyed cross.
Pearce also brought Stephen Ireland off his bench, and the Irishman brought more guile to City's attacking. Ireland twisted past Vidic and drew Heinze before cleverly setting up Trabelsi, and the Tunisian rounded Ferdinand before curling the ball beautifully beyond Van der Sar, and in off the bar, from the edge of the box.
With 18 minutes remaining City had a chance but lost Richards to injury, then another goal, then Corradi. A triple whammy. United, meanwhile, rejoice in the power of nine.