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Jan 8, 2012

United show character to silence City

Football... bloody hell. The second strangest Manchester derby of the season concluded with a 6' 8'' goalkeeper winning a header in the opposing box, with Manchester City laying siege to the Manchester United goal (their offensive threat oddly increasing every time they removed an attack-minded player), and with Sir Alex Ferguson travelling to the fourth round of the FA Cup as part of a personal nostalgia trip.

After a week that prompted suggestions his side were in decline, some said terminally, the complaint was that this was not the United of old. Ferguson negated that at once by bringing Paul Scholes out of retirement, deploying the 37-year-old alongside 38-year-old Ryan Giggs in central midfield. Suddenly, United were being transported back through the ages. Eight days after losing 3-2 to Blackburn in one example of implausible excitement, they triumphed by the same scoreline, underdogs thriving on another astonishing afternoon of faulty goalkeeping and unexpected comebacks.

The aggregate score in Mancunian meetings now stands at City 8-4 United, but the higher scorers and FA Cup holders have been eliminated. The backdrop was provided by October's 6-1, the heaviest and most humiliating defeat of Ferguson's managerial career, but the revenge mission, with a plan of confuse and conquer, succeeded. Just.

Ferguson's fondness for disinformation has long been evident, but rarely more dramatic. Scholes' second coming deflected attention from the recalled Danny Welbeck and the fit-again Chris Smalling, from the banishment of Dimitar Berbatov to the stands and redeployment of Wayne Rooney effectively as a fifth midfielder.

Yet two can trade tactical masterstrokes. Roberto Mancini revived City with a numerical disadvantage by opting for a novel 5-2-1-1 formation. Aleksandar Kolarov scored one free-kick and, in injury time, threatened to convert another. The indefatigable, inspired Sergio Aguero brought them to within a goal and Costel Pantilimon, the beanpole keeper, could have completed a tall tale had he scored at the last. In 90 minutes of sharply undulating emotions, United fans went from doing the Poznan and chorusing "we want seven" to celebrating the fact they did not concede three.

"Fortunately we scrambled away with a victory from a position where we should have battered them," Ferguson said. "We made them better than they were with our carelessness in the second half." That ignored City's spirited response, one that showed these are derbies where dismissals have different consequences. At Old Trafford, Jonny Evans' departure preceded City scoring five more. At the Etihad Stadium, Mancini noted: "We played for 80 minutes with 10 players, we did not concede any chances in the second half and we scored two goals."

But the flashpoint was the early exit. For City, United had the official assistance of Chris Foy, who reached for red when Vincent Kompany lunged at Nani, taking the ball after both of his feet left the ground. "A red card, absolutely," said Ferguson. "Maybe he's got off with it in the past." City's view was diametrically opposed, and Mancini will appeal in a bid to prevent his captain missing the next four matches. The Italian, apologetic after trying to get Liverpool's Martin Skrtel sent off on Wednesday, believed United's goalscorers were guilty of the same crime.

This was, Ferguson said, a game of three phases. The first was United's nine-minute taste of life as outsiders, ending when Antonio Valencia provided the right-wing cross, Rooney the perfectly timed, Scholes-esque header. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship; the Ecuadorian is the Englishman's preferred supply line.

A dramatic shift in the balance of power in this particular metropolis followed, Kompany departing before a Mancunian scored. Welbeck hooked in a volley of technical brilliance and increased his impact when Kolarov chopped him down. While Pantilimon blocked Rooney's penalty, the makeshift midfielder headed in the rebound.

"A magnificent performance," said Ferguson, refuting reports he is willing to sell his talisman. "Wayne Rooney is a headline maker. It is the situation that existed many years ago with Paul Gascoigne. Any flaws will be absolutely annihilated by the press. That is what they are like. That is what we are dealing with."

The badge-kissing top scorer provided a reminder of his indispensability, City a response to encourage them. Removing David Silva seemed an attempt to limit their losses; instead, it brought about a revival. Such are the surreal nature of these matches.

It got weirder after another quarter of an hour. Cometh the hour, cometh the old man: Scholes' 677th game of his stellar United career. The scorer of 150 goals for Manchester's red half then contributed to one for the blue side, his pass being intercepted by James Milner. Aguero converted his cross at the second attempt. "He is the best at slotting straight in," Ferguson nevertheless argued. "He is the one who didn't make mistakes."

Thereafter, the panting veteran showed the merits of neat, simple passes to exploit United's one-man advantage and although City came close, the Red Devils hung on. His return brought a rapturous reception: with Scholes and Giggs in the midfield, with David Beckham and Roy Keane in the stadium, United partied like it was 1999.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Wayne Rooney - A display of tactical discipline as the extra midfielder, helping United cope in their weakest department, allied with quick counter-attacking. Completely out of sorts at Newcastle on Wednesday, he was certainly back in form four days later.

MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: A pivotal spell in their season beckons. Already without Yaya Toure, due to the African Cup of Nations, they are now lacking another crucial component of the spine of their side. Kompany's absence, assuming his red card is not rescinded, is compounded by the loss of Kolo Toure. Playing Micah Richards in the middle of defence is one option. However, Adam Johnson, who was hauled off at half-time, should expect to be on the bench against Liverpool. Mancini denied it was a mistake to rest Joe Hart - although Pantilimon scarcely strengthened his case - and felt City should have had a penalty when Kolarov's cross hit Phil Jones' hand.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Crisis, what crisis? The result was an emphatic affirmation of character after the defeats to Blackburn and Newcastle. It helped that Chris Smalling was back to bolster the defence while Ferguson's choice of Welbeck ahead of Berbatov was justified. But a jittery display by Anders Lindegaard is likely to ensure the goalkeeping debate continues. Anderson and Ji-sung Park can take it as a vote of no confidence that a player plucked from retirement was introduced before either; indeed, the South Korean, disappointing of late, did not get on at all.

KEEPING IT QUIET: The famously monosyllabic Scholes and the notoriously secretive Ferguson contrived to keep the comeback under wraps to such an extent that the United team themselves were unaware of it. "It was a bit of a shock," Rooney said. "We didn't know until we were in the dressing room. It's great. It gave everyone a lift. He's a fantastic player and showed his quality when he came on."

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