No dream ending for City at the Theatre of Dreams as Manchester United coasted to an all too comfortable 4-0 victory. A hat-trick from Shinji Kagawa and another from Wayne Rooney gave the Reds a perfect fillip – if it were needed – ahead of their Tuesday date with Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid.
For the travelling Yellow Army it was painful viewing as United made light of City’s resistance, with the scoreline – despite three of the goals coming in the final fifteen minutes – fairly reflecting the home side’s dominance. Also telling was the fact City managed not a single effort on goal in the entire match.
Chris Hughton’s plan for defensive solidity saw a return to the 4-4-1-1, with Luciano Becchio having to settle for a place on the bench; Anthony Pilkington returning to the starting XI on the left flank. Wes Hoolahan returned to his more familiar role between the midfield and Grant Holt
With Sir Alex Ferguson saving Ryan Giggs for the visit of the Spaniards, the veteran missed out on a chance of his 1,000th senior appearance. The Reds showed six changes from the side that won 2-0 at QPR with Wayne Rooney partnering Robin van Persie in attack. Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans were drafted into defence in place of Rafael and Rio Ferdinand, who were also rested ahead of the Champions League tie.
In a first half of few clear-cut opportunities it was typically the home side who enjoyed the majority of possession but, with Hughton’s well-drilled two banks of four making life like difficult for Ferguson’s men, they had to wait until the 46th minute to make the breakthrough. When it finally arrived it was Kagawa who volleyed past Mark Bunn from close range after a Valencia cross was mis-controlled by van Persie and part-blocked by Sebastien Bassong.
Although a cruel blow to the Canaries so late on in the half it was a goal that had been coming with United having been virtually camped in the City half; the visitors unable to retain any quality possession for virtually the entire half.
Norwich began the second half with a little more attacking intent and early on Robert Snodgrass had an effort blocked at the near post by Vidic after good work by Russell Martin in a rare advanced position.
The closest City came all afternoon followed another little spell of possession, when Martin blazed over from close range after Holt had out-muscled Evra at the far post. Fortunately for Martin his blushed were spared when referee Swarbrick oddly adjudged the City skipper’s challenge on the Frenchman as being illegal.
Alas for City that was as good as it got from an attacking perspective, with the performance being one that predominantly relied on the two banks of four absorbing wave after wave of United attacks.
In fairness, they did so successfully for long periods, but the cost being few City players in forward positions when they looked to counter-attack. As the game wore on the legs grew progressively tired – the result of spending such a large proportion of the game without the ball – and so the gaps slowly started to appear in the defence.
The introduction of Kei Kamara on 70 minutes – in place of Wes Hoolahan – at least gave the City faithful something to cheer, but alas there was to be no fairytale ending on this occasion.
On 76 minutes Kagawa scored his, and United’s, second when he finished clinically following some good work down the right from Rooney. With City continuing to offer very little going forward, the second goal effectively signalled ‘game over’.
For City’s part they refused to lie down and in terms of effort and work-rate, Hughton would have few complaints. Where they came up short – well short – was in terms of quality, the Champions-elect showing a comfort in possession that eluded those in yellow for the whole afternoon. The four bookings picked up by City – Snodgrass, Garrido, Johnson and Turner – at least demonstrated a fully committed performance.
Kagawa completed his hat-trick on 87 minutes, courtesy of some fine link-up play between Rooney and Welbeck and, not to be left out, Rooney added his own name to the scoresheet in the 90th minute when – afforded too much time – he crashed a swerving and dipping shot past Bunn from 25 yards.
Not an afternoon to remember for City but one, in the overall scheme of things, that won’t be a season defining moment. Those will come in the next few weeks with home games against the likes of Southampton, Reading and Aston Villa.
A couple of wins from those games and the memory of today’s Old Trafford ‘lesson’ will seem a little less painful.