Brave blue battlers bring back the bacon

Posted by Simon Curtis

As Kun Aguero shot across the edge of the 18-yard box with three United defenders in his wake, it was hard not to think of Diego Maradona in his pomp.

That low centre of gravity, the pumping oak-tree thighs, the hapless defenders hanging onto his slipstream like jettisoned threads of cloud, the staggering run, off balance, but still too good, too strong, too fast. Away goes the shot.

-- Aguero fires in the winner
-- Mancini delighted
-- Martin: City pride restored

And not just any shot, a weak contact, a flap nor a poke. No, a full-blooded smack, rising off his right boot as he tumbles, rising still as it passes David De Gea's outstretched hand, rising still as it hits the top of the net. A magnificent physical feat from a player not yet deemed fit enough to start a game of this importance. It was quite a sight.

And it was the least City deserved from a performance of raw tenacity and great togetherness in their 2-1 win at Old Trafford Monday. Every single player in sky blue put in a mighty shift. Not a man was left needing to be urged on.

At the heart of everything, the magnificent Gareth Barry. Castigated for his comedy own-goal at Southampton, deemed past his sell-by date by the knee-jerk brigade, Barry made the whole show tick. Beyond the expected close passing, timely tackling, closing down, shuffling and shunting, he managed to notch the unlikely statistic of the player who made the most dribbles too! Absolutely magnificent.

Alongside him, James Milner matched him pace for pace. The Yorkshireman never stopped running, was full of invention and eager into the tackle when needed. If Barry and Milner deserve to be mentioned first, it is perhaps because they are the water carriers in this stellar eleven.

Pablo Zabaleta too, fits this bill, with the work ethic of a Trojan and the fearlessness of a gladiator, but the star men came up trumps too, with Yaya Toure and Carlos Tevez harrying and hassling the United men out of their stride.

Roberto Mancini lined up with a slightly defensive looking set-up, but in truth there was intent in City's game right from the off, with Milner and David Silva taking it in turns to show high up the field alongside the non-stop Tevez.

A fascinating pattern developed with the reigning champions taking the game to the new pretenders, challenging their authority, demanding their respectful attention.

The passing was back to the slick, vibrant best of 2012 as United struggled to get near the ball. With City threatening to get seriously in charge of things even referee Mike Dean -- in a moment of machiavellian farce reminiscent of Clive Thomas at the 1978 World Cup when he blew for half time as a Brazil corner was about to be knocked into the Sweden net -- felt it necessary to take the unorthodox step of calling a halt to the first half with Gael Clichy lifting his leg to cross into the heart of the box.

One well remembers Michael Owen scoring in this fixture in the seventh minute of five added on in the infamous 3-4 defeat in 2009, but never have I seen a half brought to a halt like that before.

Instead of allowing United to regroup and Sir Alex Ferguson to reshape, the halftime break served as a simple reminder to City of how much better they were than their hosts. Delightfully, deliciously, we got more of the same in the second half. Vincent Kompany and Matija Nastasic marshalled emphatically at the back as the front men manouevred ever closer to the big red target.

Sure enough, it was the brave Blues who took the lead, the dashing Milner reaping his rich reward for industry and valour. Back came United as the match bubbled and frothed. The anaemic Robin van Persie crossed in, the ball hitting Phil Jones' plum on the cabbage patch and -- as it freed itself and started to rebound towards the centre circle, cannoned into the net off Kompany's neck.

Once upon a time, this would have been the point where City fans disappeared under their seats to watch the remaining painful minutes through knitted fingers, but not anymore. This side is made of sterner stuff. It is made of champions.

It is building a record at Old Trafford to match the great Blues side of the late 1960s and early '70s, who hardly lost in enemy territory for six years.

Again the blue shirts flooded forward, confounding United. Mancini shuffled the pack, bravely opting for Aguero in place of a spirited and involved Samir Nasri. City had played so well, it almost seemed a shame to change the shape, but to gamblers come the prizes and Mancini got it spot on.

Aguero, fresh and full of running. would decide this pulsating game in a way only players of his calibre can. With thighs flashing like pistons, he dragged United's defence across the box. It was Maradona. It was Romario. It was pure Sergio Kun Aguero.

The ball shot off his foot past Jones as the hapless United man attempted one last desperate impersonation of Beaker of the Muppets, but to no avail. The ball had gone. In a coruscating arc, it nearly took off De Gea's nose before finding a home right in the roof of the net. City were home and dry.

The marker that needed to be planted firmly in the Old Trafford turf was in place. Manchester United, beaten deservedly on their own patch, will know in their heart of hearts that they should savour every milimetre of the space now between the clubs, for there will be no gap like this to enjoy next season.

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