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Aug 7, 2011

That's why they're champions

Sir Alex Ferguson may have played down the importance of the Community Shield earlier this week when he described it as having "no bearing on what happens during a season" but the Manchester United boss is probably quietly aware of recent history dictating that the winner of the annual curtain raiser become the champions of the Premier League nine months later.

Another late goal and another derby victory against Manchester City saw United complete an impeccable pre-season campaign - an 8-2 select XI drubbing at the hands of Marseille aside - with a satisfying 3-2 triumph, a result that may prove the precursor to them becoming the fifth straight club to go on to taste Premier League glory having won at Wembley in August. It also completed a pleasant bit of symmetry: a 19th Community Shield trophy to sit alongside their 19 league titles.

It was achieved with the sort of dramatic climax that we have become all too accustomed to with the Red Devils over the years, leaving the swathes of journalists, who had written half-time odes to an efficient but unspectacular City side and their emergence as genuine title contenders, to reach for their Tipp-Ex and laud the reigning champions once again.

Nani's stoppage-time winner completed an enthralling comeback for United, who picked themselves up in stirring fashion having gone in at half-time two goals down. After capitalising on a ricochet from Vincent Kompany, the winger sprinted clear before showing great composure to take the ball around Joe Hart to finish: the Old Trafford T-shirt presses now surely in overdrive as Nani '11, Scholes '10 and Owen '09 editions are churned out to commemorate a hat-trick of last-gasp derby match-winners.

The United fans exploded off their seats as the ball hit the back of the net, and the volume of the subsequent chants of 'That's why we're champions' certainly brought Ferguson's pre-match assertion that the Community Shield is merely "a stepping stone to the first game" into question. The result was not just a statement of intent ahead of the new season but provided United supporters with a sense of retribution for the pride-denting defeat to City in last season's FA Cup semi-final.

Like that Yaya Toure-inspired 1-0 reverse, City started Sunday's match by patiently sitting back and inviting United to attack. And just like that April afternoon, Roberto Mancini's tactics paid dividends - Joleon Lescott's thumping header from David Silva's deliciously whipped free-kick giving City the lead. If concerns about the positioning of new United No. 1 David De Gea were muttered after the opener - he appeared to be on the floor before Lescott has even headed the ball - they were being screamed from the Wembley rafters on the stroke of half-time when he let Edin Dzeko's speculative 30-yard effort creep past him. Ferguson played down his goalkeeper's errors after the game, though, saying: "For the first goal, the delivery of the ball was good. The goalkeeper had no chance. For the second one, the ball the ball swerved a bit and caught him on the wrong foot."

There was no question that City's 2-0 advantage at the interval came as a bit of a shock. United had been doing most of the probing, while Mancini's side had been doing most of the fouling in the opening exchange. There was little 'community' spirit afforded when Kompany clattered Patrice Evra in the opening minute and the rather hopeful concept of a 'friendly' derby continued to be flouted as Edin Dzeko and Anderson were booked after clashing, before Toure and Micah Richards were also cautioned for late challenges on Rooney and Young respectively.

Ferguson admitted that the second goal "could have been a killer", but half-time changes - Tom Cleverley, Jonny Evans and Phil Jones coming on for Michael Carrick, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic - brought a fresh impetus. Mancini, often lambasted for a fondness for negative substitutions, could not be criticised for his decision to bring on mechanical midfielder Gareth Barry for the mediocre Mario Balotelli. The tempestuous Italian's only telling contribution was to go head-to-head (literally) with Nemanja Vidic, which was a brave move from Balotelli in a performance that was otherwise as lifeless as the fish on the back seat of his favourite motor.

Barry's role was to steady the ship, to protect his side's defence. However, that gameplan went awry soon after the break. Ashley Young's free-kick from the left was as pinpoint as Silva's had been from the right in the first half and Chris Smalling - who impressed at right-back with a combination of surprising marauding runs and unsurprising physicality - turned the ball home.

United's equaliser, coming just five minutes later, drew an immediate wave of appreciative applause from the press box. Back in May, Ferguson's side watched, at times dumbstruck, as Barcelona outmanoeuvred, out-passed and comprehensively outshone them in the Champions League final at Wembley. But, back on that same turf, the men in red invoked the spirit of Catalonia to claim a leveller, as a remarkable quick-fire passing exchange between Rooney, Cleverley and Nani - in a seemingly impossibly tight area on the edge of the penalty box - was delightfully finished by the Portuguese.

Mancini introduced Adam Johnson but, aside from a rasping shot that prompted a 'one for the cameras' save from De Gea, he struggled to assert himself as United continued to dominate in attack. Danny Welbeck showed plenty of enthusiasm and demonstrated a greater intelligence in his off-the-ball running - something United supporters , remembering the headless chicken he had been before his loan to Sunderland, would have been pleasantly surprised by. Welbeck couldn't cap his performance with a goal but a start at Wembley, coupled with Fabio Capello's decision to pick him for the latest England squad, demonstrates the faith that his managers for club and country have in him.

For a United side bursting with youth, this was a hugely encouraging performance, while it is not quite a case of back to the drawing board for City, who had enjoyed an unbeaten pre-season prior to the Community Shield. For Mancini to achieve his wish of "playing this match every year" as league champions, though, it is City's Manchester rivals who will need to be beaten.

MAN UTD VERDICT: While the concession of two goals will hardly have their rivals quaking in their boots, United's continued ability to fight back from the brink should. The returning Welbeck and Cleverley, as well as new boys De Gea, Jones and Young, have injected a new determination and desire into the squad and Ferguson's eye for creating a successful blend of youth and experience makes the reigning champions favourites to retain their crown.

MAN CITY VERDICT: Mancini continues to shackle his flair players by playing stifling, negative football. It may have been enough to end their trophy drought by delivering the FA Cup but City will not win the league if the Italian persists with this approach. David Silva continues to be the star attraction and was again a delight to watch with the ball at his feet, but he needs to see more of it.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Nani. An impressive 2010-11 season ended in personal disappointment when he was not included in Ferguson's starting line-up in the Champions League final, but Nani looked hungry on his return to Wembley and crowned a performance of penetrating runs aplenty with a superbly-taken brace. Ferguson praised his contribution: "Nani had a fantastic season - he was unfortunate that Valencia came in at a time when we needed a bit of freshness. [But] when you see the form of Nani in pre-season and today, he will start the season. People only say he's in Ronaldo's shadow because he's Portuguese. He's never been in his shadow in my mind. Some players take longer to mature than others."

SPOILSPORT STEWARDS: The steps that the players ascend to collect the trophy are directly next to the expensive Club Wembley seats, treating those who can afford it an excellent view. But when one eager young United fan innocently scampered into the exclusive area, attempting to catch a glimpse of his heroes, he was forcefully removed and returned to the proletariat in an act that showed an unnecessary lack of compassion from the steward in question. Must do better.

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