What a difference a decade makes. In 2010, Manchester United and Manchester City met in the then League Cup semi-final, with the second leg played under the lights at a frothing, ferocious Old Trafford. On Tuesday night, there was a repeat, this time with the first leg at the Theatre of Dreams.
How times have changed. In 2010, Old Trafford was a cauldron, the atmosphere visceral, almost bestial, every man, woman and child overcome by the rule of the mob. Normal, peaceful people were transformed into spite-ridden, baying monsters.
The game was bursting with narratives: The ‘Noisy Neighbours’ were on the rise, come to take United’s crown by force, soaked in oil and swimming in riches; Carlos Tevez, the deserter, the traitor, with his stocky frame and scarred face, snarling about the pitch like a man possessed, the human embodiment of all United fans’ fears, returning to the scene of the crime. How the red half of Manchester longed for him to fail. How venomously they spat the word ‘twat’ as they mocked him from the stands, like thousands of serpents seething from their pit; Wayne Rooney, who United fans loved for his heroics over so many years, but loathed for batting his eyelashes at this very enemy so shamelessly and so publicly not so long before.
Of course, it was Tevez who seemed to seal extra time for the usurpers that night, and of course, it was Rooney who headed home the winner in stoppage time, and kept the clock ticking on that Old Trafford banner that so infuriated City’s fans, a constant reminder of whose shadow they had been in for so long.
That night, that performance, that result felt cataclysmic at the time. Still, leaving Old Trafford, victorious, United’s fans knew, deep down, that they had only stemmed the inevitable tide.
Ten years on, and with the ticking flag long gone, pulled down with the first of City’s trophies, but far from the last, and that evening in 2010 seems like a lifetime ago. Tevez is gone, Rooney has just returned to these shores to join Derby County and Sir Alex Ferguson has long since retired. And the Manchester United he built over two and a half decades is fading into folklore.
Tuesday’s game was not the first time City have humiliated United in their own back yard. They did it to Ferguson’s team in 2011, they toyed with David Moyes’ rabble in 2014, and now they have done it to Ole Gunnar Solskjær with 2020 barely a week old.
Here there was none of the expectation of old. The atmosphere was bleak, Old Trafford almost silent, save for the singing section in one of its corners and the City fans who, seeing United’s team-sheet, smelled blood. What little noise there was from the home support was quickly quashed in a first half that was an ordeal for these fans. City were rampant, effortless, sublime, their movement irresistible, pulling their opponents out of position all over the pitch with the carefree ease of a toddler going to town on a chessboard.
It was a mortifying watch for these proud fans, who so want Solskjær to succeed. He and his assistants stood on the sidelines looking utterly bewildered, as Pep Guardiola conducted his symphony from his own technical area. The gulf in class was stark and overwhelming, United’s players spinning dizzily in all directions. You felt Solskjær should do something, without really having any idea what it was he should – or could – do.
He could have been forgiven for throwing up his hands and accepting that his threadbare squad had simply come unstuck, put to the sword by a team who had a point to prove after they were defeated by United at the Etihad Stadium only a few weeks ago, and a manager who, when he gets it right, gets it so, so right.
Yet Solskjær will not throw up his hands. He will keep on plodding on, working with what little he has left after injuries and exhaustion have swept through his squad like a plague, desperately hoping that United’s executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, is true to his word and does not lose patience in him.
Woodward would do well to watch that first half again over the coming days. The ex-banker has always talked a good game but watching the chasm between these two teams must show even him the difference between a club like City, mocked and derided for so long in these parts, that has been run with a clear vision and an almost faultless attention to detail since they last met United in this competition.
Such meticulous planning is in stark contrast to United, who have lurched from one course of action to another in that time, pulled in one direction to the next like a rudderless ship lost at sea, with Woodward at the helm.
United could sack Solskjær, of course, and bring in Mauricio Pochettino, as many fans would like. He would bring his own plans, his own staff, his own methods. But then Pochettino would probably fail too, undone by a club constantly chasing its tail, and off we would go again, the never-ending descent into footballing madness, the asylum overrun by the lunatics.
A decade is a long time, indeed, and the arrogance of those who were meant to be custodians of English football’s most successful club have overseen a decade of decay. Perhaps Solskjær will eek out another unlikely result like the one against Paris Saint-Germain last season, when United and City meet again for the second leg. It would be another miracle, but everyone knows that relying on miracles is no way to run a football club.
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