Manchester City’s commanding victory over United will have their supporters wondering what might have been

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As he waited to come on as a subsitute last night, perhaps Sergio Aguero noticed the distinctly confident banner hanging on an Old Trafford railing. “Aguer-noooo!!. 20-3. Back to normality” it read, a reference to the current League title count of the two teams along with a mockery of Martin Tyler’s screaming narration of the moment City sealed last season’s title. The banner would have been hastily folded up as Aguero charged triumphantly to the corner flag after tearing a hole through the United defence. United may have won the war, but City won the battle.

And a battle it was. Lead by the imperious Pablo Zabaleta (surely a candidate for City’s player of the season) City snarled and bit their way through a tentative United midfield. A similar albeit less controlled response came from Wayne Rooney who might count himself fortunate to have lasted the 90 minutes. The striker had one of those brooding, dangerous games in which he seemed determined to pick an argument with referee Mike Dean at every opportunity, even after scything through James Milner with studs raised. His substitution in the last five minutes may have saved him from a decidedly less dignified exit.

Manchester City fully deserved their victory. With the considerable exception of Vincent Kompany’s own goal, their defence was rarely troubled, whereas Rio Ferdinand and Phil Jones endured a difficult night keeping pace with City’s attacks. The payoff came in the 78th minute when Aguero ripped through the heart of United’s central pairing and smashed a shot into David de Gea’s top left corner. It may not have had the consequence of the Argentine’s winner against QPR last May, but it capped an evening that City could justifiably claim to have dominated in every department.

However, City’s supporters will be entitled to wonder where this level of commitment was hiding earlier in the season. Exemplified by that dismal afternoon at Southampton in February and the farcical errors by Joe Hart and Gareth Barry, City have too often resembled a collection of men choosing when and when not to apply themselves. Samir Nasri does not seem to have recovered from Roberto Mancini’s quip that he wanted to ‘punch’ the midfielder for his inconsistency and too often City have looked like a team held together only by the leadership of Vincent Kompany.

If Mancini is given a chance to explain to his employers why he should be allowed to continue at his post next season, Monday’s game will be his safety net. But questions could certainly be raised of his judgement at times this season. The jettisoning of Mario Balotelli could not have come soon enough and Mancini’s patience with the troubled striker will not have sat well some players who have not been shown the same level of leniency. Joe Hart, for one, may justifiably be aggrieved at his manager’s comments that he should “stay in goal and make saves… I am the judge, not Joe Hart”.The Italian has also been at pains to frequently lament the decision of Robin Van Persie to join United – one can imagine how this might affect the confidence of the strikers he already has.

Balotelli’s ability to distract should not be underestimated and City’s squad will be a more settled and focused group of players in his absence. But Mancini’s assertion that “we know we can win the title next year” will only be realised if the Italian can create a determined and unified atmosphere within the dressing room. The harsh criticism that Mancini regularly hands out his players is not replicated on the other side of Manchester. Backed by Sir Alex Ferguson’s unwavering encouragement David De Gea has had a fine season for United while Hart, in a campaign punctured by his manager’s criticism, has not been as solid as he was last year.

There will be much for both managers to consider as the season draws to a close. Ferguson, after revelling in the glory of such a comprehensive league victory, will nevertheless be troubled by the ease with which they were picked apart by City last night and has tricky decisions to make over the futures of Anderson, Nani and Rio Ferdinand. Unless he finds himself out of a job, which is possible, Mancini will consider a clear-out and hope for a better summer of transfers than he did last year. In any case, it will be a rocky road back to the top for City.

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