Old Trafford rises to Solskjaer's derby triumph of style and steel
- Manchester United have often stepped up in big games under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but there was a new controlled assurance in the derby.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has made a habit – often a timely one when conjecture about his suitability for the role of Manchester United manager springs up – of claiming wins over the Premier League's big-hitters.
But Sunday's 2-0 Manchester derby triumph over City, their third in all competitions against these feted opponents this season, carried a weight of authority to suggest Ole at the wheel might yet steer the club to a prosperous destination.
For all the thrills of their against-the-odds comeback over Paris Saint-Germain in last season's Champions League, to the 4-0 ransacking of Chelsea on the opening day of this term and a bravura counter-attacking display at the Etihad Stadium last December, there was far more substance to what unfolded at Old Trafford.
The opening 20 minutes indicated normal service on this ground, where City had won six times and lost once on their past eight Premier League visits, before considering January's EFL Cup semi-final masterclass.
Raheem Sterling forced a smart save from a plunging David de Gea, Sergio Aguero deliciously nutmegged a sprawling Harry Maguire to prompt another close shave and the visitors' possession figure tipped 71 per cent.
But United did not blink or shirk from a plan built on applying steady pressure in the City half, closing up the passing avenues that become gold-paved boulevards when Pep Guardiola's men are at their best.
Where there has been a kick, rush and hope approach in midfield in these fixtures previously from United, there was assurance.
3 - This was Manchester City’s third defeat against Manchester United in all competitions in 2019-20 – it is the first time in Pep Guardiola’s managerial career that he has suffered as many as three defeats against a specific opponent in a single season. Tripled. #MNUMCI pic.twitter.com/213Ej0FzAY— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 8, 2020
It is hard to overstate the impact of Bruno Fernandes, whose clever chipped free-kick created Anthony Martial's breakthrough goal. United now have a game-breaker in central areas after seasons of chasing the shadows of Yaya Toure, David Silva and others in this local argument.
Kevin De Bruyne's injury absence for City was only made more yawningly obvious by Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva's wholly ineffective contributions, within a collective effort that smacked of attentions turned elsewhere to a potential clean sweep of knockout cups at home and abroad.
With the sky blue creators becalmed – and the part of a revitalised Nemanja Matic in this should not be under-stated – United could turn their attentions towards a back four never too far from ramshackle this season.
Fernandinho and Oleksandr Zinchenko were made to look like recent converts to their positions. Nicolas Otamendi, a career centre-back, rarely looks anything other than a recent convert to his position.
Fouls were coughed up, even if Gundogan's punishment for a challenge on Fred that led to the pivotal moment was highly debatable. Behind that porous backline, the usually reliable Ederson flapped over Martial's volley and saw it nestle in his net.
Either side of the goal, Fernandinho and Rodri received bookings for dissent. United were the side exhibiting smooth control, bending ratty and rattled opponents to their will.
These fans.— Manchester United (@ManUtd) March 8, 2020
This club.U-N-I-T-E-D! pic.twitter.com/NBu2IkWjKE
The pay-off for Solskjaer's men controlling the middle part of the contest was they had the fresh legs and clear minds to repel what passed for a City onslaught when it arrived. Sterling added to his catalogue of horror misses against these opponents – it is now remarkably no goals in 20 outings against the Red Devils – but scares were kept to a minimum.
Old Trafford rose to acclaim its new hero when Fernandes made way to run the clock down, but this was every inch Solskjaer's triumph, one unforgettably burnished by Scott McTominay thanks to another Ederson moment to forget.
A second clean sheet in succession against the most potent attack in the land, a trio of wins over a generation-defining coach, a first league double over City for a decade and a step towards the Champions League next season – a stage on which a performance of such style and steel belongs.
Now unbeaten in 10 across all competitions, Solskjaer might just be convincing the doubters he belongs there too.Published 09 Mar 2020, 00:44 IST