Van Persie strikes it lucky to win derby

Posted by Mark Payne

AP PhotoA game of real ebb and flow for United at the Etihad: strong early, strong late.

Robin van Persie was the difference once again as United edged their noses over the line. The clock was ticking down and it looked as if Pablo Zabaleta's late equaliser would prove enough to share the points. Yet the Dutch striker had other ideas: His deflected free kick squeezed in at the far post to give United a 3-2 win and send Sir Alex Ferguson's side into delirium.

Until that point, City had had the better of the second half, scoring two goals to draw level. The match had started as a derby should, all flexed muscle and raw tension.

The United lineup was one of the most attack-minded that Ferguson has at his disposal. Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young are both incisive forward players and started alongside Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick. It also represented something of a ruse for Ferguson. He had declared both Valencia and Cleverley unfit to start the match, yet out they trotted here. Ashley Young has been given starting berths against both Chelsea and City now. Has he become Fergie's new big-game weapon? This must mean Park Ji-Sung is safe from being recalled.

It quickly became apparent that this was a tactical master play from Fergie. Knowing that Samir Nasri and David Silva weren't likely to track back, the zippy Young and Valencia (both of whom did help at the defensive end) ought to exploit the space they would leave open. It was similar to the way United played against Chelsea earlier in the season -- great stuff from the old Scot.

Wayne Rooney's opener was a contentious finish and came against the run of play. A cheeky, impish goal had Joe Hart bamboozled and frozen to the spot. Some might say that it was lucky, but it was certainly enough to change the flow of the game.

It is almost front page news if United score first nowadays. It certainly is if they score the first two. As if he were out to prove that the first had been no fluke, Rooney stroked home the second with authority to notch his 150th in the Premier League. Any sense of control City had felt they had was in tatters.

Rooney has now broken Sir Bobby Charlton's record of 10 goals against City. One wonders if he will be breaking any more of Charlton's records before his career is out.

As the game headed toward halftime, those in the stadium, including Tom Cruise and Robert Duvall for some reason, wondered if this was the best United have played all year. Certainly, some parts of the team are starting to click. The combination of Valencia and Rafael on the right flank is starting to resemble the old combo of David Beckham and Gary Neville in their pomp.

United's peace was bound to shatter around their defence, though. Jonny Evans was substituted right as Rio Ferdinand started to clutch his knee at the start of the second half. Right on cue, Carlos Tevez started to warm up. He couldn't have been a better villain if he had worn a cape.

United were greatly aided by Vincent Kompany's early substitution, but City regrouped for the second half. Yet Mario Balotelli didn't look interested and just wasn't up for it today. The Argentinian replaced him, and the game swung back in City's favour with 60 seconds that changed the match.

Robin van Persie's sublime curler struck a post and Young pounced on the loose ball only for his finish to be ruled offside. City quickly danced up the other end and forced David de Gea to make two excellent saves before a third poke at the ball by Yaya Toure gave the home side its goal. United were in for a hairy half hour. Never let it be said that they get all the decisions.

Zabaleta's equalizer set up an unbearably tense end to the game, but United will feel they should have been out of sight by then. Mancini was throwing on players to try to score while Fergie wanted to make the game safe. Van Persie took matters into his own hands.

There is not much between these teams, and it is going to be a long battle for this title. Ferguson described this victory as "special." He knows as well as anyone else that as things stand, it is very much advantage United.

Follow Mark Payne at www.twitter.com/markjpayne

ESPN Conversations