Pablo Zabaleta, his battered form slumped against the far post, slithered slowly down it to the ground like an uprooted plant. His immense contribution, full of guts, will-to-win and indomitable spirit, typified the fight City had carried to their neighbours during a second half so full of energy and urgency that it felt like the walls were coming down.
Zabaleta and his countrymen, Tevez and Aguero, had revealed just the characteristics we attribute to professional footballers from this part of the world: fight, technique and courage, coupled to a seemingly never-ending stream of spirit and lust for the ball. It was quite something to behold, quite something to fix your eyes upon. The raw meat of the Pampas in the bearpit of a Manchester derby.
Ultimately, once more so cruelly late in the day, it had not quite been enough.
Such are the vagaries of football that a performance of such delightful controlled aggression as we saw in the 2nd period at the Etihad on Sunday afternoon would surely see off every team in the Premier League, but this intensity comes at a cost and, with big perfromers, it sometimes comes only in extremis.
Only the very best bring out the best in players, who know they can coast against Norwich and put in a 70%-er against Wigan and the likelihood is that they will survive the experience intact. Against the old foes from across the city boundary, only 100% will do. When we were finally delivered just that in a second period of mounting effectiveness, the signs were clear that we can not only match this season's pace-setters, we can peg them back and get the result, a result that, in this case, looked more and more like being a win as the clock ticked round to 90 minutes. United were shredded, tired and their hitherto admirable organisation and shape was beginning to unravel before our eyes.
But football is a cruel beast and it turns on a sixpence if you take your eye off it for a second. Suddenly the red shirts were back up the other end. City, left open by the incessant pressure in the opposite direction from the preceding 35 minutes, were suddenly exposed. Clichy, with the will to risk, took one too many. Tevez, the marvellous catalyst to the 2nd half pyrotechnics, nicked the advancing heels of the shorn Hobbit and he tumbled. Confusion ensued. Three men in the wall? Four men in the wall? Mancini's hand signals did not match Hart's and an ominous nervousness gripped the crowd at the South Stand end. Sure enough, as Van Persie struck the freekick left footed, Nasri, suddenly looking for all the world like something that had just been deposited on the Etihad turf from La Grande Revue at the Moulin Rouge, waved a gartered thigh at the passing ball from his place snug behind Edin Dzeko. The ball clipped his foot and arched the extra five centimetres needed to carry it around Joe Hart's outstretched fingers. Those same fingers that had asked for men in the wall, a minute earlier. Men, not showgirls, cowgirls or schoolgirls.
City, undone yet again by a post-90 minute United winner, collapsed en masse to the grass. Shades of Michael Owen, of Wayne Rooney and of Paul Scholes and of several others i am trying now to block from my mind. On and on it goes, this agony with no name, this terrible stretching of time until it twangs back and smacks you full in the face.
|Nasri prepares to join the end of the wall|
In today's anodyne settings and picture postcard political correctness, you get looked at in a strange way if you stand up to adjust your clothing in a football stadium, so this derby's raw edge, which became more jagged as the afternoon wore on, was a bit of a throwback to the times when Doyle and Macari traded punches and insults, players refused to leave the pitch after being red carded and crowds bubbled with such unrest that - within a couple of seasons - fences were going up all over the ground. By 1975 the Kippax was divided from top to bottom by a great mesh of chicken wire as the warfare spread around the ground. A lone pitch invader wearing the sort of headgear Paddington Bear might have baulked at is not in the same league. The throwing of coins, however, is a repugnant throw-back to the worst excesses of the eighties, when golf balls came with nails hanging out of them and beer bottles flew the barbed wire space that was no man's land.
Todd wrote those words after a tight ugly scrimmage of a derby in 1973 had ended goalless and without much cheer for either City or United. The irony would not have escaped him, had he still been alive, that the 2012 version was packed full with everything that the 1973 version palpably lacked, but with the added irritant of the unruly crowd alluded to in his poetic descriptions. The more sanctimonious members of the Twittersphere told us shortly after the end of the game on Sunday that people's behaviour at derby matches emits a dark unwholesome stench, revealing an aspect of human nature that is best kept covered up, but there is nothing wrong with a bit of tension, a bit of aggression, to wind up the atmosphere a notch or two. Derby matches are no places for the trembling neutral, although the front rows of the Etihad seemed richly populated by half and half scarves (the most inappropriate garment ever to be worn at the Manchester Derby since Alan Ball's shell suit and flat cap combo in 1995 and dear old Brian Horton's aggressively checked jacket), flasks, biscuit tins and the now usual array of Canons, Nikons and Blackberries clicking away at anyone who comes near them, be they red shirted or blue. Who'd have thought this Sky-clad glue would attach itself to little old City in the modern era, after all that bare knuckle stuff at Bootham Crescent and the Racecourse Ground?! There were no coach parties from Hong Kong taking pictures of Jamie Pollock, that's for sure.
|Would you wear this garment?|
Once upon a time, it wasn't a derby match without a few hundred flared trousered philanthropists hammering around the centre circle. Whilst Sky thought more of it, the television viewing public were left to wonder why everyone was running off camera to the right, leaving the tv screen showing a rapidly emptying centre circle.
So the dust settles and the emotions, having been given a good old fashioned shredding for the first time since May 12th last year, settle too. United, with admirable shape and energy, came away with the spoils on this occasion. Through gritted teeth we congratulate them for this. they played well, using the forward outlets of Young and Valencia to maximum effect. They kept their shape under increasingly robust pressure in the 2nd period and got lucky at the end. But luck had also removed a legal goal and a possible penalty, whilst at the other end, David Silva's shot was put onto the bar by De Gea's left ear. It was that kind of game. The kind of game that brings us back to this much-changed, much.tampered with sport of ours, because, in it's purest most furious form, it is unlike anything else we know.