After a long season break for the World Cup qualifiers, the serious business of Premiership football resumes and this weekend it is the even more serious business of the Manchester Derby, Red versus Blue, with pride, points and league standings all at stake.
Despite the importance of the match, manager Sir Alex Ferguson decides to rest some of the senior players before the Champions League game away to Villarreal on September 14th and the following weekend's massive match against local rivals and current European Champions Liverpool. There's no place for club captain Roy Keane nor Welsh winger Ryan Giggs, Ronaldo is missing due to the sad loss of his father and Gary Neville and Wes Brown are both still injured.
Despite the weird 4-3-3 lineup, featuring the odd sounding midfield of Fletcher-Smith-Park, Manchester United quickly settle into their game and steadily begin to put Manchester City's defence under pressure. The Sky Blues have little to offer apart from the occasional counterattack down United's left wing but the Red defence mops up easily.
The new look midfield is working surprisingly well so far, with South Korean newbie Jung_Il Park, in for Giggs, taking a free role down both wings and Alan Smith, playing a little deep, in place of iconic team captain Roy Keane.
Wayne Rooney, a player who I believe could be better than Diego Maradona if he's allowed to develop properly, is having a relatively quiet game, possibly a little stale after England's won one, lost one World Cup matches.
The match becomes a slightly dull midfield struggle for control with neither side looking particularly sharp until, right at the end of the first half, Paul Scholes drives forward a free kick which Ruud van Nistelrooy meets firmly on the volley. City Keeper David James, disappointing for England, pulls off an impressive one-handed instinctive diving save but his skill goes unrewarded as the ball rebounds straight to Ruud who makes no mistake and it's GOOOOOOAAAAAAALLLL! 1-0 to United!
City are visibly deflated by the late first half goal but still full of resistance, this IS the Manchester derby after all, as the second half gets underway. Not much has changed from the first half, a lot of midfield toiling away with United being more assertive and looking for a second goal and City defending for all they're worth.
Alan Smith is looking solid in his new central midfield role and, in the absence of Ronaldo and Giggs, Rooney and Scholes are handling all the dead ball situations.
Over an hour gone now and the Sky Blues' need for a goal grows urgent but, despite the presence of former Red Andy Cole upfront, they can't find a way through United's defence. With under twenty minutes left, City's impressive manager Stuart Pearce makes a double substitution in midfield. They are obviously desperate to get something out of the game as even a draw will keep them ahead of the Red Devils.
Suddenly, in the 75th minute, it all changes for Manchester City. A cross into the United box from City's right wing is missed by everybody and ends up on the left. After a couple of ricochets the ball ends up at the feet of City's new striker Darius Vassell. He shoots and the ball hits City midfielder Joey Barton and it's an unlikely GOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAALLLLLL for The Blues.
It's 1-1 and the first goal United have conceded all season.
Almost immediately, Sir Alex brings on both Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs, followed a few moments later by Kieron Richardson. Can they save the day for United or is there simply too little time left for a comeback?
Unfortunately it's the latter, in fact United almost lost the match in the last minute of extra time. City break down United's left (again) and a fast low cross is met by ex-Red Andy Cole but his quick shot is blocked by Edwin Van Der Sar and that's it.
A fantastic result for City, who remain ahead of United in the Premiership table, albeit having played a game more.
A disappointing result for Manchester United, points dropped, a goal conceded and drawing at home to City feels almost as bad as defeat.
This review is cross-posted here at BlogCritics.