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Offshore drilling, England: Manchester United 3, at Manchester City 2

Dec 9, 2012, 10:50 AM EDT

Manchester United's Van Persie celebrates his goal against Manchester City during their English Premier League soccer match at Etihad Stadium in Manchester, AP

Despite long spells of City dominance, Manchester United took a crucial three points from the Etihad Stadium on Sunday. Two first half goals from Wayne Rooney capped by a stoppage time winner from Robin van Persie saw the Red Devils defeat their inter-city, 3-2.

After 15 minutes of absorbing a strong start from their hosts, Manchester United again showed their best moments are capable of winning this year’s Premier League. Yet an early double Rooney was not enough to stave off a shootout, with a second half siege from Manchester City producing goals from Yaya Touré and, in the 86th minute, Pablo Zabaleta.

Luck shined on United in the final minutes as a free kick to the right of the area deflected off Samir Nasri in City’s wall. The resulting ball curved into the left side of Joe Hart’s net, giving United full points from their rival.

It was exactly the type of performance we’ve come to expect in big games from this Manchester United team: uneven, at times meek, but in the moments that mattered most, precisely executed.  While last year’s Manchester Derbies hinted City may be immune to United’s potent attack (City outscoring their neighbors 7-1), this year United has stuck the first major blow in the Premier League title race.

With the win, the Red Devils sit six points clear in England.

Man of the Match: While the second goal was one most players should finish, few could replicate Wayne Rooney’s contributions to the opener. He clearly deserves credit for a shot which, pulled back across his body, froze Joe Hart as it rolled just inside the left post from 18 yards. But the shot would have never gotten off were it not for a deft touch on a hard-hit pass from Ashley Young, Rooney opening is right foot to perfectly trap a ball into the space he needed to get clear of three closing defenders.

Despite spending most of the season in the shadow of Robin van Persie, Rooney has quietly put up a prolific start to the season. After today’s tallies, the United talisman is up to six goals and seven assists in league action. Fourteen goals and 16 assists (his current pace) would be a spectacular year for the ever-evolving star.

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United was built for this: “Against the run of play” was the common refrain after Manchester United opened their account. City had looked better, the analysis held, forgetting United always looks like this in big games.

Through most of a Premier League season, United’s skill on the ball can dominate games while the Red Devils play some of the best soccer in the world. But against teams like City and Chelsea, United have often conceded control with the hope their speed and execution will provide them with decisive chances in transition.

That’s exactly what happened today. When David de Gea came of his line to claim a through ball in the 15th minute, his first instinct was to get the ball back into play as soon as possible. A rolled pass to Patrice Evra, a chip to Ashley Young, a chest pass from Robin van Persie, and Young is free. Within seconds, the ball is in the back of Joe Hart’s next, all built off an innocuous pass from De Gea.

This is how United will win big games. Only Chelsea can match their skill in attack. Nobody can match their speed, depth, or variety.

City may have been the better side in the first quarter hour, but I doubt Alex Ferguson was worried about it.

Roberto Mancini’s tempting fate: With Manchester City flaming out of Europe after finishing last in their Champions League group, some contend manager Roberto Mancini’s not long for the job at the Etihad. Today, Mancini stoked those flames.

He deserves credit for helping to bring his team back, but a series of curious lineup decisions are sure to draw questions:

  • Mario Balotelli started over Carlos Tevez and was then removed after trying a backheel. If you’re not prepared to live with Balotelli’s idiosyncrasies, don’t start him. Even if you’re fine with his theatrics, the contention Balotelli should start a Manchester Derby over Tévez is difficult to defend.
  • Matija Nastasic continues to start at left-center half over Joleon Lescott. That’s defensible enough, even if breaking up the central defense tandem that won last year’s Premier League is problematic. But when Vincent Kompany got hurt and Kolo Touré came on over Lescott, you started to wonder what Lescott’s done to fall so far in Mancini’s regard.
  • Is there ever a reason to take Yaya Touré off and leave Barry on? That’s what happened in the 84th minute as Mancini brought Eden Dezko on. Perhaps fitness was a concern.

Moments, not spells: Perhaps it’s the elevation of all things Barcelona that has led us to revere spells of control over moments of execution. You would have thought Inter Milan’s 2010 Champions League title would have dissuaded us of the notion, but it may not be that simple. There is something innately logical about assuming the team with the ball is in control, even if that control is often inconsequential.

This is why critics have often undervalued United’s recent teams. They often look second best. They don’t control play as often as other teams. Their midfield seems thin and undermanned. By the standards we’ve come to pursue in the modern, midfield-centric game, United is lacking.

Like José Mourinho as he bossed Inter to that Champions League title (beating Barcelona along the way), Ferguson understands the leverage in those moments of transition where an attacking team can have a rare absolute advantage. In getting players like Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and Shinji Kagawa (out injured on Sunday), he’s built his team to maximize those moments.

On Sunday, that philosophy earned United a crucial win. Maybe they didn’t control the match, but they control the points.

Packaged for takeaway

  • Rio Ferdinand was hit above the left eye by a coin thrown from the Eithad stands as he celebrated United’s third goal. With blood trickling down his face, it was initially unclear he’d be able to finish the game’s final minutes. Just a reminder: It’s still within the power of the crowd’s worst person to ruin a classic match.
  • Jonny Evans appeared to strain his right hamstring while being taken down by Balotelli in the first half. He had to come off for Chris Smalling.
  • David De Gea, who may have only started because Anders Lindegaard’s partner went into labor before the game, gave a strong performance. Against a City team that doesn’t rely on crossing, De Gea should probably start, regardless.
  • It was another game that worked against Joe Hart’s best goalkeeper in the world case. Then again, he’s not the one making it.
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