Manchester United may have handed their crosstown rivals a decisive advantage in the Premier League title race, as they fell 0-2 at home to Manchester City on Wednesday. United fans would not have enjoyed the fact that a win would have put Liverpool in the title-winning driving seat instead, but in truth the Reds never had a realistic say in the matter. Goals from Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling put the Blues top of the table, and put another dent in United’s top four hopes at the same time.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer resisted the urge to “play the kids” in Wednesday’s Manchester derby, but he did drop several underperforming regular starters. Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial, and Nemanja Matić were some of the worst players on the pitch against Everton at the weekend, and all three found themselves relegated to the bench. Most notable among the changed XI was Matteo Darmian — making his first start under Solskjaer in a strange-looking team.
Whether they were chastened by the weekend’s humiliating loss, lifted by the occasion of a Manchester derby with massive consequences for both sides, or some combination of both, United started with purpose. They were quicker into challengers, their passing was crisper, and they were generally showing more sharpness and effort than at any point during the last few outings. Within the first twenty minutes, quick thinking and clever execution by Paul Pogba had sent Jesse Lingard clean through on goal, and Lingard had done the same for Marcus Rashford on a counter attack. Both were only half-chances, but they were at least signals of United’s intent.
City were looking as assured as befit a side that had won the last ten matches on the trot, but the hosts were not allowing the champions to play the game on their own terms.
After withstanding the first half hour of United pressing and harrying though, City eventually settled into the game and starting dominating possession. United were still occasionally threatening to hurt the visitors on the counter attack, though, clearly targeting Vincent Kompany with the pace of Rashford and Lingard.
At half-time, United could be reasonably happy with the execution of their game plan and with the 0-0 scoreline, but in truth a draw was not helping either side.
Just five minutes into the second half, City lost their best player. Fernandinho had been outstanding in midfield to that point, but went off injured to be replaced by Leroy Sané, a change that made City both more vulnerable — in theory — and more threatening.
City made their increased attacking edge pay off almost immediately. Bernardo Silva drove at Luke Shaw at the edge of the box, and the United left-back was slow to move his feet at a critical moment. Silva feigned to switch the play before placing a low shot just inside of David de Gea’s near post.
United did not let their heads drop after conceding, and fashioned a succession of attacks. Unfortunately, City made them pay for that as well. Fred was making a habit of either winning the ball back or dribbling his way out of trouble only to immediately return possession with a poor pass. After his latest giveaway in City’s half, Sterling took off running to launch another counter. Both Fred and Lingard failed to tackle Sterling, and the winger found Sané in ample space. The substitute shot quickly and powerfully, catching De Gea in two minds, and doubling City’s lead. United’s keeper has looked unfocused for long stretches of this season, and yet again left fans wondering if he could have done better.
Andreas Pereira, Darmian, and Lingard made way for Lukaku, Martial, and Alexis Sánchez as Solskjaer desperately searched for a sparked to get his team back into the game, and into the race for Champions League qualification.
The jig was up by then though. United are not, and had not been, good enough. City saw out the result with relative calm, while United are now left to finish the season watching from a position of irrelevance while their two closest battle for the league title.