Commentary

Manchester City revel in United's pain

Updated: October 24, 2011, 2:47 PM ET
By David Hirshey | Special to ESPN.com

What a game on Sunday! What a dazzling display of attacking soccer. What a comprehensive dismantling of a fierce opponent. And what a clarion call to the rest of the league that yesterday's punch line can indeed have today's last laugh.

[+] EnlargeEdin Dzeko
Laurence Griffiths/Getty ImagesPiling on: Edin Dzeko scored a brace in the 89th minute and in stoppage time against United.

Of course, I'm talking about Arsenal's colossal 3-1 home win over Stoke.

Although, come to think of it, the above sentiment also could apply to Manchester City's merciless beatdown of its crosstown rival, the reigning Prem champion.

So let's see: United crushed Arsenal 8-2 in August, City humiliated United 6-1 on Sunday in what Sir Alex called his "worst-ever day." (Be honest, Fergie, it can't be worse than when Steve Bruce and Sunderland declined to take Jonny Evans off your hands along with the rest of United's flotsam and jetsam this past summer.) By my calculations, that means that when the Gunners visit Etihad Stadium on Dec. 17, they should expect to lose 14-3.

My questionable math skills notwithstanding, I guess the Manchester derby result was a little more significant than Arsenal's defeating a fractious opponent on its way to six wins in its past seven games courtesy of the next player (Robin Van Persie) Man City will try to hijack from the Gunners for a ridiculous amount of money. As delighted as I was to see Arsenal beat Tony Pulis' bully boys, the game itself lacked the fireworks of the match at Old Trafford.

Speaking of which, judging by the warm embrace that Roberto Mancini and Mario Balotelli shared after the game, I'm assuming that City's manager would be perfectly happy for the mercurial marksman to accidentally burn down not only his own bathroom but all of northern England in a massive Roman candle mishap if he could continue his scorching goal-scoring form.

How can you not love Balotelli? The Mohawked One seemingly refuses to act like a normal human being, and fortunately he has the talent to back up his weirdness, which is a refreshing change of pace in a league packed with so many vanilla personalities. Seriously, can you imagine reading that Frank Lampard and his homies blew off steam before a derby by setting off explosive devices at his home, necessitating a visit from a local truck-and-ladder brigade in the wee hours of the morning? That's just a run-of-the-mill weekend for Super Mario.

[+] EnlargeGallagher
AP Photo/Joel RyanNoel Gallagher gave six reasons City rules as he arrived for the Q Music Magazine Awards on Sunday.

Balotelli's pair of clinical finishes on Sunday took his early-season haul to six goals in five games and made the question on his T-shirt redundant: "Why always me?" is simply the English translation of "Pourquoi moi?" -- something the iconoclastic French genius Eric Cantona would routinely pose after insouciantly executing a wonder strike for United, then wallowing in the adoration of the Old Trafford crowd. Balotelli may be a popped collar and a karate kick away from Cantona-ization, but he's still just a kid and has already turned the normally raucous Theatre of Dreams into a librarylike mausoleum.

Oh, these are heady days on the Sky Blue side of Manchester, all right -- "The city is ours," the away supporters chanted at 3-0 before serenading Sir Alex with "You're Getting Sacked in the Morning." Having long been every bit as irksome and irrelevant to United as Spurs used to be to Arsenal, it's no longer just tabloid hyperbole to install City as the odds-on favorite to win its first league title since 1968.

The "six-pointer," as Fergie called the game in the prematch buildup, became a six-goaler that will live on in Old Trafford ignominy. Not only was this the first home defeat in 38 games, but it also was the worst league mauling a Ferguson-coached side has endured.

Moreover, it gave his once-genuflecting neighbors five and six points' worth of breathing space from the two teams with a realistic chance of catching them -- United and Chelsea, respectively. The darker blues spent their day seeing red, two of them, to be exact, as Sideshow Luiz needlessly conceded an eighth-minute penalty that Heidar Helguson scored, giving QPR a 1-0 win in their West London derby and denying Chelsea the chance to slip into second place.

Even this early in the season, it's difficult to view City's demolition of United as anything other than a terrifying statement of ability and intent. Mancini can try to downplay his team's dominance all he wants -- "United are still one yard above us. We can change this only after we win the title" -- but truth be told, the score line flattered United. City easily could have notched eight, or what we like to call The Full Arsenal, had Edin Dzeko, scorer of two goals after coming on in the 70th minute, not bungled two other silver-platter chances.

Is it too easy to say that watching this one made Sir Alex "six to his stomach"? Absolutely, but it feels good anyway.

Hubris can be dangerous, and so insufferably smug was Ferguson earlier in the week, talking about how United was looking to close the gap on Barcelona, that he ignored the devil in his own backyard. There were moments on Sunday when City, led by its own illuminating Spaniard David Silva, looked so breathtakingly fluid in attack that the longtime United boss must have had harrowing flashbacks to Rome and Wembley. If the second City goal, where the ball tiki-taka'ed from Silva to James Milner to Balotelli to the back of the net, was Barca Lite, the third could have been sculpted by Michelangelo -- or Arsene Wenger. Again Milner, the often-derided English international, was in the middle of the move that saw Micah Richards, of all people, dribble to the byline before cutting the ball back for Sergio Aguero to slide home.

[+] EnlargeAlex Ferguson
Laurence Griffiths/Getty ImagesSir Alex Ferguson suffered his "worst-ever day." But don't count his side out of the Prem title race just yet.

As animated as Ferguson was midweek when he prowled the touch line bellowing his dissatisfaction in United's labored 2-0 win over Romanian giants Otelul Galati, he was simply shell-shocked on Sunday, slinking further and further down in his deep-cushioned red dugout seat as the carnage increased. The look on his creased, almost seven-decade-old face betrayed his resignation, and for the first time in memory, one could describe his famously brightly colored pallor as pale. Or at least it was when Evans was justifiably sent off less than two minutes into the second half, reducing United to 10 men.

In the opposing dugout, it must have taken all of Mancini's celebrated self-discipline not to do a giddy Jose Mourinho-like jig after goals four, five and six. Wasn't it just the other day that the urbane Italian was the ruling poster boy for anti-soccer, routinely lambasted for shackling his embarrassingly deep squad with a credo of Defend First, Grind Out Cagey 1-0 Wins Later? But this season, he has released the hand brake and allowed Silva -- can we please just award him the Prem MVP now? -- Balotelli, Dzeko and Aguero to follow their natural free-flowing, attacking instincts. I can barely wait to read the "where are they now?" piece on Carlos Tevez in 2012.

The end result of this weekend's carnage? Thirty-three goals in City's first nine fixtures, an orgy of net-rippling power heretofore unseen in the nearly two decades the league has been in existence. Not that its defending has slackened in any way; Richards and Vincent Kompany were in majestic form, leading a rear guard that's second-stingiest in the Prem with seven goals conceded.

As surprising as City's siege was, it was even more shocking to see a United side so bereft of ideas and pride, especially in its Old Trafford fortress. Only Wayne Rooney seemed interested in trying throughout the match, and his frustration boiled over late in the game when he berated Rio Ferdinand for not chasing back on the fourth goal. The former English captain, missing his fellow defensive enforcer Nemanja Vidic, seemed content to scowl and watch David De Gea unfurl his lanky frame to continuously pick the ball out of the back of his net. But he was hardly the only culprit. Patrice Evra, perhaps exhausted from flogging his racism accusations against Luis Suarez all week, looked completely lost and was continually beaten by Milner and Richards on the right flank.

With Tom Cleverley out injured, transfer targets Luka Modric and Wesley Sneijder performing their sleight of foot for other clubs and Rooney playing in the hole, United had no one in midfield capable of prying open City's defense the way Silva did to United. Ferguson was forced to look for creative inspiration from Nani and Red-Card-Waiting-To-Happen Anderson, and neither had the composure nor the precision to pick out the marooned, forlorn figures of Danny Welbeck or Rooney up front.

This third consecutive lackluster display shows that the Red Devils' early-season swagger seems to have fled, perhaps joining their legendary fighting spirit on an Iberian holiday jaunt. But history is rife with United comebacks. Despite getting whacked by City 4-1 in March 2004, by season's end United was challenging for the title while the Sky Blues slumped to 16th. And let's not forget 1996, when the Red Devils suffered back-to-back thrashings in six days (5-0 and 6-3) at the respective feet of Newcastle and Southampton, only to go on to lift the trophy.

Which is why only a fool would bet against Fergie's men bouncing back from this humiliation and battling City and Chelsea to the last breath of the season. The Premier League is littered with the bodies of those who forgot the most important soccer lesson of the past 20 years: Never underestimate Sir Alex Ferguson. Now say a prayer for Everton. The Toffees play United next weekend.

David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."

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