Love Sport Radio's Manchester United Correspondent Wayne Barton analyses a tight Manchester Derby
Manchester United won at the Etihad Stadium with an impressive performance; but it wasn’t enough to win through to the Carabao Cup Final.
It has been a turbulent and hectic few days at Manchester United; likely to be a little busier still as the transfer window concludes this week. They didn’t add a League Cup final to their diary but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his team will come out of this game with a lot of credit. The bi-polar personality of this side continues to confuse.
City, with their remote chances of winning the league, were looking to kill this tie off early on. David De Gea was forced into two saves in first eight mins, including one great one from Sergio Aguero.
Despite the early pressure, United were not as shaky or as ropey as they were in the first half of the first leg at Old Trafford. That is not to say they were outstanding; they did look to be on the ropes at some points, but, it is an indication of the sheer levels and chasms between United’s capabilities. Sometimes they can be good - or very good - as they were in December’s meetings. Sometimes they can be awful. Other times, such as this, they can play within the confines of their limitations but give themselves a fighting chance.
Really, a fighting chance was more than most expected after that first leg. Hope was more or less definitely off the table.
It was, then, a testament to the resilience and managerial ability of Solskjaer to respond and get United back into the tie. It looked as if their best chances would come from set pieces, and so it proved, when Nemanja Matic stole in at the back post to finish smartly and give his side an unexpected lead on the night.
Matic is in talks for a new contract, which may be an unpopular decision, but here’s a possibly unpopular opinion to align - he’s playing the best he has since arriving from Chelsea in 2017.
It stung City into action. Raheem Sterling had the ball in the net but he was offside. And Sergio Aguero thought he might get to the ball before an advancing De Gea, but he could not. 1-0 at half time, and United very much in the tie, was almost more than anyone could have expected.
It is important, probably, at this juncture to comment on Manchester United’s expectations on three scores; historical, with the squad at Solskjaer’s disposal, and with the squad with its current injury problems. It’s easy to forget they’re missing their best striker and first choice midfield duo.
It is something perhaps taken for granted, but particularly after the last two managers, it was a welcome change that United were at least trying to win the tie with a positive attitude instead of sinking under the idea of damage limitation.
The second half followed a similar pattern to the first; and it seemed to follow the pattern Solskjaer had planned, or hoped for, in Paris last year, with his team waiting patiently for the opportunity to come up. Remarkably, the situations to do so arose, in spite of some moments which seemed likely to seal United’s fate.
First of all in the 72nd minute, Harry Maguire committed the mistake that the byline-deep defending from goal-kicks has always threatened. He gave the ball away to a City shirt six yards out, but recovered magnificently to perform a block tackle and deny the goal. United supporters are used to seeing the ridiculous to the sublime with Phil Jones. They will be hoping this is just a hiccup.
Less than five minutes later and it seemed the tie was up when Matic was dismissed for a second yellow card. It seemed harsh and a big punishment for a foul that was innocuous rather than cynical.
City were chasing an equaliser to kill the tie off and had another goal disallowed when Aguero was offside. Solskjaer brought off Shaw for Mata - a big statement of intent.
There were not many bright moments and it still seemed as if they were reliant on set-pieces. United might also lament the lack of an imposing centre forward. There was not much for Anthony Martial to feed on but he also hung on the periphery of the game where, in comparison, Marcus Rashford has used his individual skill to make things happen. It was a test failed for the Frenchman.
When United were awarded a free-kick with just three minutes left, it seemed a fated decision to have brought the Spaniard on. It could barely have been better placed or better timed. But then Mata walked away, leaving Fred and Pereira over it. Fred took it, hitting it into the wall, and there went the last real chance of taking this tie all the way to penalties. It was a remarkably poor decision from all concerned. Did Mata not feel confident enough to insist with his greater experience? Why weren’t Fred and Pereira sensible enough to step back? On such poor decisions, destinies are made and changed.
You can ask Wilf McGuinness, who had only the potential of semi-final defeats to serve as highlights and a prospect of a better future. Those games now exist as what if moments. You don’t always get a second chance. The decision to not have Mata on that free-kick could have far-reaching consequences.
It generates an interesting debate because it is difficult to know how to analyse it as a one-off game. United did very well to win considering the circumstances. Solskjaer comes out of it with credit.
But credit only goes so far; if you are not ruthless in football, you can find it can be ruthless with you. It was a harsh lesson to learn.
De Gea 8