Manchester City will be Premier League champions. But not yet. Manchester United stormed back in the second half of a thrilling Premier League encounter to beat their local rivals and deny them the chance to celebrate for one more week at least.
City’s preoccupation with their progress in the Champions League seemed to present United with an opportunity. While Pep Guardiola rested his three best attackers - Kevin de Bruyne, Sergio Aguero, and Gabriel Jesus all started on the bench - José Mourinho had a fully fit and better rested squad from which to choose.
Somewhat unusually for a Mourinho team in a big away match, United started the match pressing the hosts high up the pitch. Mourinho may have denied to the media that he “learned anything” from Liverpool’s win over City, but for once, he did not set his team up to sit deep and absorb pressure. Not that it paid dividends, mind, because it was still City who struck first.
Antonio Valencia gave away a needless corner with a shanked clearance in the 25th minute, and from the ensuing corner, Chris Smalling (predictably) lost track of Vincent Kompany. The City captain buried his header to put the Blues on the way to the Premier League title.
United’s misery would be compounded just five minutes later. Another careless giveaway put Raheem Sterling in the box. The former Liverpool man played in Ilkay Gundogan, who then pirouetted cleverly to evade the attention of Nemanja Matić before finishing calmly into the corner. With half an hour played, United were staring disaster in the face.
If not for Sterling’s wayward finishing, the Reds could have been totally humiliated even before the break. The attacker missed two chances in the space of five minutes when clean through on goal. After a solid start, United were all over the shop after conceding.
The Reds started much brighter in the second half, and the chance to gather themselves during the break seemed to have done them some good. Seven minutes after the restart, the visitors had pulled a goal back, through the man whose name had dominated the buildup. Alexis Sánchez played a ball into Ander Herrera in the box, who brilliantly chested the ball into Paul Pogba’s path. The Frenchman made no mistake with his finish.
Ninety seconds after that goal, United were improbably level, through that man Pogba again. The French midfielder played a ball out wide to Sánchez, before sneaking in behind Nicolas Otamendi in the box. Sánchez floated a cross in, and Pogba twisted his body to guide an excellent header past Ederson and even the score at 2-2.
United were not done. Alexis Sánchez was involved again. The much-criticized January signing won a free kick and took the delivery himself. The floated ball evaded Kompany, and it was Smalling of all people who found himself on the end of it. Smalling finished expertly, and in a mad turn of events, the Reds were in front and flying.
From there, the intensity on the pitch went up a level. Guardiola sent on de Bruyne, Aguero, and Jesus to chase a goal. Ashley Young put in a strong tackle in the box that many thought should have been given as a penalty. Fernandinho and Pogba picked up quick yellow cards for rough tackles, and there were two or three incidents of minor handbags.
City were still pushing forward late on, and it took a stunning right-handed save from David de Gea to keep out his old teammate Aguero. From the ensuing corner, Sterling could only guide his effort against the foot of the post.
United held on professionally to see out the win as the City players started losing their cool. City will soon win the war, but United at least won this classic battle.