There’ll be dancing on the streets of Stockport tonight, to paraphrase the late, great, Bill McLaren. It was Manchester City’s day, with Roberto Mancini’s outfit leaving Wembley triumphant after Yaya Touré’s 52nd minute goal. In truth Sir Alex Ferguson’s players barely arrived, lacking not only energy and drive, but seemingly desire too. Perhaps his team’s hearts and minds were left somewhere on the M1, which so many supporters had struggled to navigate on the trip down.
This defeat was hugely disappointing, of course, but nor the ‘Manchester United way’ either; limp, lethargic, and worst of all, unambitious. That was the big picture but the game was also lost in the minutiae – Dimitar Berbatov’s criminally poor finishing, Michael Carrick’s sloppy defending, Park Ji-Sung’s inability to retain possession. None a virgin observation.
If the result is sickening for United supporters, then the red card and three match ban for midfielder Paul Scholes will also hurt. The flame-haired 36-year-old started the match as the only Mancunian on the pitch; he ended it in disgrace, rightly dismissed for a thigh-high second-half tackle on Pablo Zabaletta. That the Argentinian also raised his studs is moot of course. Retirement may now not be far away.
The victory increases City’s chances of lifting a first trophy since 1976, although the club’s capacity for comedy never fails to surprise. The winners of Sunday’s Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City clash awaits City in the final. Either will certainly give Mancini’s side a better game than United managed on Saturday.
Meanwhile United can be thankful only for the reduction in fixture congestion that defeat ensures, with United’s match against Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park now confirmed for Saturday 14 May. It is no consolation for the thousands who made the trip south and with no further matches against City this season, Reds must now suffer months of Blue-baiting.
“The first 15 minutes after half-time cost us the game,” Ferguson admitted.
“Slack moments. Edwin (van der Sar) had a bad kick out and Michael Carrick couldn’t hold it and it was a goal. From then on, they were defending apart from a couple of counter-attacks. It’s disappointing as we should have been ahead in the first half as we were the better team.
“The chances that Dimitar missed – there was a great save by the goalkeeper but the second chance, from under the bar, if he’d have scored there, I had a feeling whoever scored first would win the match.”
Ferguson opted for the Bulgarian as United’s lone striker, a role that has so rarely brought the best out of player or team in the 30-year-old’s three seasons at Old Trafford. Retaining Park to bolster midfield, Ferguson dropped livewire striker Javier Hernández. If the plan was the remain competitive in midfield it failed, with City passing through or around United’s engine room with ease.
United started brightly though and fashioned the game’s opening chances. Twice Berbatov wasted openings, first racing clear only to see his shot saved by City’s Joe Hart, and then firing over from inches under the bar. It is a miss that will haunt the £30 million Bulgarian.
City though found a foothold in the game by half-time, with Gareth Barry firing into the side netting and then Mario Balotelli forcing Edwin van der Sar to tip over from long-range. The goal, minutes into the second half, was born both of individual errors and Touré’s power and drive. First van der Sar’s poor kick was collected by Carrick, and then the Geordie gifted Touré possession. The Ivorian needed no second invitation to fire past United’s legendary Dutchman.
Ferguson reacted by finally bringing Hernández into the fold, seemingly too little and far too late. The Mexican had little to do with Nani’s long-range free kick that smashed onto Hart’s bar and aside from the Portuguese’s strike there was little response by United; Ferguson’s side either unable or unwilling to change the pattern of the match.
Scholes’ red card on 73 minutes, while not fundamentally altering the match, did little for the Reds’ attacking ambitions. Heads dropped and United barely created a chance in the finally flurries.
“We’ve seen over his career Paul has had unbelievable moments – he’s one of the greatest players this club has ever had,” added Ferguson. “But he has his red-mist moments – he caught the boy on the thigh.”
There could be little in the way of argument with Mike Dean’s dismissal, even if the Wirral-based official has been the centre of repeated controversy in United’s matches.
In truth United’s performance was well below par, with early chances missed and defensive errors replete. Perhaps fatigue got the better of United, or the side missed Wayne Rooney more than expected, but with a trip to Newcastle United on Tuesday night, Ferguson’s players have no time to dwell on the most disappointing result of the season to date.
“If one of those goes in, maybe it’s a different game and they would have to chase us,” van der Sar told MUTV.
“In the second half, when they scored, we went to 10 men, one man down, and it was hard to chase and try to get the equaliser. We had some half-chances or possibilities to get the ball into the box but nothing really materialised. We were hoping for that famous injury-time goal again but I think our luck ran out a little bit.
“It’s not the way we normally defend so we have to do something to take the blame – all the players who have been on the pitch. Nobody really performed to their standard, I think.
“We had a go in the last 20 minutes but just maybe we were a bit tired also in the end. We have played quite a big amount of games in the last three or four weeks. We have got two days to recover from this game then, on Tuesday, it’s an important game.”
In that veteran van der Sar is entirely correct, with perhaps only defenders Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand performing to an acceptable level. Ferguson now faces the very real challenge of turning around his team’s morale and ensuring that the Premier League does not slip away as the cup has now done.
After the whistle Ferdinand and substitute Anderson ended up in a near brawl with Ballotelli; the Italian running towards United’s supporters to kiss his badge. If only United’s team had shown the same level of fight during the game.
United – 451 – van der Sar; O’Shea (Fabio Da Silva x84), Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Valencia (Hernandez 65), Carrick, Scholes, Park, Nani; Berbatov (Anderson 74)
City – 433 – Hart; Zabaleta, Kompany, Lescott, Kolarov; Y Toure, De Jong, Barry; Johnson (Wright-Phillips 79), Balotelli, Silva (Vieira 86)
Attendance – 86,549
Man of the Match – Vidic
Possession: City 44% – 56% United
Attempts: 10 – 12
On Target: 2 – 6
Corners: 7 – 6
Fouls: 14 – 9