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Feb 10, 2008

Forever remembered

The past retains its power to evoke emotion. A half-century has elapsed since a day that irrevocably altered Manchester United's history and identity, but the two words 'forever remembered' that served as the motto of the occasion were all too apt.

So many memories can be ephemeral, yet the permanent reminders of the Busby Babes inspired a mixture of curiosity and awe. The exhibition in the newly-renamed Munich Tunnel drew a series of visitors. That much of it was being recorded on digital cameras provided an instant reminder that this is a very different world to that occupied by men seen only on grainy footage and Pathe newsreels.

Their capacity to inspire respect extended to the Manchester City fans. A minute's silence passed without the feared interruptions. Fifty years on, a sense of loss was tangible. 'Perfect,' said Sven-Goran Eriksson who, along with Sir Alex Ferguson, had laid a wreath in the centre circle beforehand. 'I have never been in a ceremony like that before. It was beautiful.'

City's part in the commemorations extended to their fans, too. Their chorus of 'there's only one Frank Swift' was a strangely moving tribute. Whether any of those singing their former England goalkeeper's name had ever seen him play was irrelevant. The recognition and respect were genuine, and it would have been appropriate had the United fans responded with a similar appreciation of Duncan Edwards. But there were moments when Manchester appeared a city united, and those echoes of a bygone era extended to a City win at Old Trafford, itself seemingly a result plucked from times of yore.

As nostalgia reigned, the eight victims were commemorated on the upper tier of the Stretford End. Even the advertising hoardings bore the names of the dead, at least until kick-off when Air Asia and co made an unwanted reappearance. At least commercial considerations had not impinged upon United's 1950s-style kit, numbered traditionally.

Comparisons between eras can be invidious, but they are enticing nonetheless. When United hinted at fluency and passed the ball with the speed and verve that the Busby Babes apparently possessed, the temptation was to squint and wonder if it was how the team of half a century ago appeared.

Perhaps not, if only because of the differences in personnel. The No. 9 shirt of Tommy Taylor, renowned for his aerial power, went to the short, squat Carlos Tevez, though one volley, requiring a diving stop by Joe Hart, would have been acceptable for centre-forwards of any era. The No. 6 of Edwards, the nonpareil of the team, went to Nani, whose brand of showmanship marks him out as a very different player from the post-war thoroughbred. The No. 3 of the captain Roger Byrne, who apparently rarely mis-timed a tackle, was granted to John O'Shea, booked for a distinctly late challenge on Darius Vassell.

But having paid due and proper respect to their past, United's present was rendered less pleasant by a subdued performance. Michael Carrick, bridging two themes in one distinctly misguided sentence, said: 'The minute's silence went well but we're not happy with our performance.'

However, as Eriksson said: 'I think everyone who belongs to City, whether a fan or a player or a director, should be very proud today.' So they should be. His City excelled in each department. Richard Dunne and Micah Richards produced a second derby display of defensive resilience this season. They were expertly shielded by Dietmar Hamann, while Stephen Ireland and Gelson Fernandes lent the midfield the energy United lacked.

City's counter-attacking prowess produced both goals. Martin Petrov, outstanding throughout, laced a pass through the United defence for the advancing Ireland. Although Edwin van der Sar smothered and blocked Darius Vassell's rebound, the part-time right winger succeeded at the second attempt by opening the scoring. Then a cross whipped in by Petrov drew a delicate touch from Benjani to double their advantage. 'He comes from Zimbabwe, he scores on derby day,' responded the visiting fans, with admirable speed of thought.

'I think Benjani is a perfect player for how we play football. He has a great attitude,' said Eriksson of his debutant striker. The African's proven ability as a lone striker suits City, and their ability to break quickly was a feature of the match. 'We have technique and we have pace and with Benjani that's even better,' explained the City manager.

Despite Carrick's consolation goal, City earned a first win at Old Trafford since Denis Law's backheel helped to relegate United in 1974. While their hosts played with the weight of history on their shoulders, City made their own.

• MAN OF THE MATCH: Dietmar Hamann - An intelligent performance from an intelligent player. Anchoring the midfield, his was a first-class exhibition in reading the game and maintaining possession.

• MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: When Wayne Rooney does not play, they lose. The significance of the dive at White Hart Lane that brought him a fifth booking of the season was apparent. United are unbeaten this season with Rooney, and in his absence, Cristiano Ronaldo was pressed into attack and Carlos Tevez somewhat isolated as a lone specialist striker. Though the substitute Carrick scored, there was never the sense that United had match-winners on the bench either.

• MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: Just when they appeared to be in freefall, City showed they retain their capacity to surprise. Tactically excellent and executing their game-plan superbly, they fully merited their win and deserved to end United's unbeaten home record.


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