- Vincent Kompany25‘
- Ilkay Gündogan30‘
- Paul Pogba53‘
- Paul Pogba55‘
- Chris Smalling69‘
It was a second half comeback that made you question everything you thought you knew about the Premier League season 2017-2018, and which will go down as perhaps Jose Mourinho’s most monumental bit of sabotage ever.
At two goals behind at half-time, and Manchester City with one hand on the Premier League trophy, their old rivals looked flat out of confidence – a team bowing to the inevitable with no belief and no shots on target. Paul Pogba had his hair dyed the wrong colour and could not keep the ball, Alexis Sanchez was a footnote and only Raheem Sterling’s profligacy in front of goal had prevented City’s lead from being even greater.
And from that position at half-time, United scored three goals to win the game, postpone City’s great title moment and ask the kind of uncomfortable questions of Pep Guardiola’s team posed ever since that defeat at Anfield on Wednesday. That the first two goals came from Pogba, and the winner from Chris Smalling, two of their side’s worse players in the first half only made the day more surreal and the turnaround more astonishing.
Guardiola was magnanimous in defeat, and sought out Pogba at the final whistle, presumably to explain something about Friday’s claims that the Frenchman had been made available for sale. Pogba, with his hair blue, and his touch terrible in the first half, was one of the United heroes by the end and it was a hard one to explain other than to say that confidence in football is a mysterious commodity that can be lost as quickly as it is accumulated.
City had it in a masterful first half in which Vincent Kompany and then Ilkay Gundogan gave them the lead and then they lost it rapidly, very nearly without all their composure by the end. There was a challenge by Ashley Young on substitute Sergio Aguero that should have been a penalty, and Sterling hit the inside of the post. Fernandinho sought retribution on Jesse Lingard and there was one more brilliant save from David De Gea to secure the result.
Mourinho might always remember the hijacking of Liverpool’s title in 2014, as Chelsea manager, as his finest intervention but this one was up there too as the Etihad emptied to the noise of the away fans celebrating.
There was no Kevin De Bruyne in the City starting line-up, nor Kyle Walker, the recently returned Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus or Aymeric Laporte – the evidence being that this was not even their most important game of the week. They were going to try to beat United and win the title on this historic day with four changes from the team that started the Champions League quarter-final first leg three days earlier, and after a while you could see why.
United stepped up in the first few minutes as the two teams took shape – Bernardo Silva in the centre-forward position, if not the conventional centre-forward – and Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic assumed a position in advance of the halfway line. Then when finally City got into their rhythm after ten minutes there was no question which of the two sides had the confidence and the plan to win the game.
United ended the first half without a single attempt on City’s goal, on target or off. City ended the half with two goals but it might even have been five with the chances that they created, and missed, which had Guardiola despairing on the touchline.
If anything, you thought that Mourinho’s United might be able to mount a grinding and protracted defence of the stalemate but when Antonio Valencia sliced a clearance over his own goal for a corner on 25 minutes, their confidence was already draining. In the penalty area as they waited, Chris Smalling realised with a creeping horror that he had lost Kompany and was still hanging on to the City captain’s shirt when the Belgian headed the first goal past David De Gea.
Both City goals at Old Trafford in December had been from set-pieces and this one made three for the season, this being that bit more embarrassing for United in the way that Kompany charged through to connect with Leroy Sane’s corner.
The second City goal arrived six minutes later, but before then you could see the tell-tale signs of a United performance in crisis. Pogba would later try to run the ball out of his own half and fail to do so, but even before then he was losing the ball in critical areas of the pitch. He looked lost.
The second came from a De Gea clearance miscued straight to Sane and which went from Gundogan to Raheem Sterling and back again to the German who turned majestically around Nemanja Matic with his left foot and got an unusual connection with his right to score. It was brutal, the kind of punishment that gets meted out to weak teams, and United looked weak.
After that United were close to capsizing and there were two chances for Sterling, both created by David Silva that the Englishman should really have scored. Gundogan had a free header that he directed straight at Ederson and half-time arrived to rescue Mourinho’s side.
They had needed it, and the effect of just doing the small things well was immediately telling. They were unchanged at half-time and getting the ball to Sanchez, anonymous in the first half, meant there were immediate gains. At last, from United’s point of view, they started to get at the vulnerability in City’s defence.
Just how vulnerable was never as evident as in 25 minutes of the most remarkable jitters from a City team that had been cruising to the title and now started to wonder if they were really that sure of themselves. The goals from Pogba were his first positive effect on the game, although he did manage United’s first attempt on target after 49 minutes just moments before his first.
That was a well-worked move that went from Sanchez’s cross from the right, Matic astutely chesting the ball down and Pogba nipping in ahead of Ederson to toe the ball in. The difference to United’s confidence was evident, and within two minutes there was another, Pogba leaping to head the cross from Sanchez into the only corner of Ederson’s goal he could not reach.
City were wobbling and while later De Bruyne, Jesus and then Aguero would come on it was not before United would take the lead. This was Smalling’s moment, at the same end he had rode Kompany’s coat-tails he met Sanchez’s ball from the left again with the side of his foot to give his team the lead. In the final stages City had the chances and Aguero might well have had that penalty, but in a season of being second, this was United’s day.