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Apr 9, 2013

Manchester United lack bite in hot-headed derby

The local rivalry is escalating. Manchester Town Hall was lit up with 84% red and 16% sky blue lights earlier this week. This was in response to Virgin Media asking local fans to tweet allegiance to either United or City. It was a playful ruse to take advantage of publicity around the Manchester derby on Monday night. On the pitch at Old Trafford, events were far less cordial.

- Okwonga: 12-point gap real, but misleading - Martin: City pride restored - Report: Fergie blasts refs after loss

Ryan Giggs put in four sturdy tackles in the first ten minutes, two of which were punished as fouls. Wayne Rooney could have been sent off for a lunge at James Milner after 32 minutes and almost every outfield player exchanged shoves in an unedifying ruck towards the end after a clash between Phil Jones and David Silva.

The escalation in the bad feeling between these teams has been dramatic. Not so long ago, United and City fans would sit side by side in the pub, perhaps exchange a bit of banter, but nothing with a dark undercurrent. In Manchester on Monday, the vibe between fans on either side of the police cordon was very tense. One female fan, who has been visiting Old Trafford for thirty years, described it as "scary".

Inside the ground, the atmosphere was electric and the pace of the match was intense. Those who had predicted a careful encounter of light sparring were quickly proven wrong. Hurt pride is an excellent motivator and both side had it in spades. City for relinquishing their title, United for that horrific 1-6 defeat last year.

There was much to cheer in United's display. David De Gea's distribution was excellent and Robin van Persie showed signs of returning to the glories of earlier in the season with some deft touches. However, United sorely lacked bite up front and couldn’t cut through City's final line of defence.

Manchester City were also winning too many fifty-fifty balls and started to dominate as the first half wore on. Milner's deflected opener was just the kind of gilt-edged chance United couldn't fashion.

United enjoyed their most effective passages of play when hitting on the counter-attack. Inevitably, these would involve either Patrice Evra or Rafael bombing forward from deep. Considering he is the right back, it says much that Rafael was United's most effective offensive player.

On one of his forays forward, the Brazilian, who has now been at Old Trafford longer than Eric Cantona was, won a free kick on the right-hand corner of the box. Van Persie's beast of a delivery was almost indefensible, but Joe Hart still made the wrong decision in trying to claim it. It sailed over him towards Jones whose connection ricocheted off Vincent Kompany and into the net. United barely deserved to be level.

Jones was United's other stand out performer. On no less than four occasions in the first half an hour he dug his side out of trouble with interceptions and last ditch tackles. Earlier in the week Sir Alex Ferguson had sung the defender's praises, "His talent is unbelievable, he could play anywhere." In the hue and cry of the derby, he stood out on a field full of internationals.

Sergio Aguero's winning goal was the stuff of legend. He held off three United defenders to dash across the box and fire in his finish. It was a goal reminiscent of his father-in-law Diego Maradona and nobody can have any complaints. "We're okay," said a mildly miffed Sir Alex at full time.

The stuffing has been knocked out of their season but Manchester United's excellence earlier in the campaign should see them through. Van Persie is returning to form and could still finish with a bang to help forget this defeat. City fans went home in full voice as United lost the battle. But Fergie's team will still win the war.

Follow Mark on www.twitter.com/markjpayne