Man City’s comeback exposed chasm in class between derby rivals

MANCHESTER, England — By the end, the 192nd Manchester derby had provided a fair idea of where the city’s two biggest clubs are.

Manchester City, dominant for so much of the afternoon at the Etihad Stadium, won 3-1 to stay in the hunt for a record fourth successive Premier League title. Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag, meanwhile, decided the only way his team could match their neighbours was to defend doggedly and hope for the best, yet they still lost comfortably.

Pep Guardiola’s team, who went behind to an early Marcus Rashford wonder strike, eventually showed how good they are while United showed exactly how much ground there is to make up. New United investor Sir Jim Ratcliffe says he wants to knock City “off their perch” but on this evidence, it won’t be happening anytime soon. City are one point behind leaders Liverpool and have a trip to Anfield up next, and there’s every chance they will be back on it come May.

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Ten Hag insisted afterward that the game was closer than it had appeared, but even the staunchest United fan would have struggled to swallow his assessment after another derby disappointment.

“No, I don’t think [the result shows a big gap between the teams], absolutely not,” Ten Hag said postmatch. “You can see we have many problems with injuries and still we had an opportunity [to win].

“Really small margins. We could have scored the second goal in a debatable moment. It’s not that big [of a gap] and when we have everyone on board we can be competitive. I think also we showed in the cup final against them [last season] when it was really close but City is, at this moment, the best team in the world. Don’t forget this.”

Ten Hag was pointing to a lengthy injury list that includes Rasmus Højlund, Lisandro Martínez and Luke Shaw as a key reason he had to line up with Bruno Fernandes and Scott McTominay masquerading as forwards, but even against a team determined to close gaps and break quickly, City were streets ahead.

They went in at half-time down 1-0 thanks to Rashford’s rocket that exploded in off the underside of the bar, but City’s 203 passes in the final third compared with a measly 17 from United provided a better reflection of how the first 45 minutes went. City had to wait for two goals in the final 10 minutes to be sure of victory, but it was telling that they ended the game with 27 shots on goal. United managed three.

“Football is not only about possession,” Ten Hag argued afterward. “We scored a brilliant goal but also after that the first 20 minutes we had some more opportunities. I think we defended brilliantly out of possession and the defining moments were not on our side. We were really close to get a win or at least a draw here.”

For almost everyone else in the stadium, however, there seemed to be a chasm between the teams. City, though, haven’t had things all their own way this season and for the 12th time in the Premier League, they needed to respond after conceding the first goal. Only Liverpool have recovered more than their 21 points from losing positions.

There was a moment when Guardiola became so frustrated that he made a point of telling the ball boy close to the benches he needed to retrieve the ball more quickly. But among all the chaos and tension of a derby, his team stayed patient and it paid off.

Foden, the best player on the pitch, scored after 56 minutes and again after 80. Erling Haaland, who missed a golden chance from close range in the first half, wrapped up the points in stoppage time after substitute Sofyan Amrabat had given the ball away to Rodri. The result didn’t flatter City and Guardiola was left thinking his team should have scored more.

City have now won three straight home league derbies, their longest run since 1955, winning the games by an aggregate score of 13-5. After a hat trick in his fixture last season, Foden has scored five of them.

“He is right now, this season, one of the best [in the Premier League],” Guardiola said. “I always had the feeling he would score goals. Now he is winning games. To become a world-class player you have to win games. He has an incredible work ethic, he lives to play football and now he is winning games.”

For City, it was the perfect way to start a difficult run of fixtures, with games against title challengers Liverpool and Arsenal to come before the end of March. After their Champions League round-of-16 second leg against FC Copenhagen on Wednesday, they head to Anfield next week, although Guardiola immediately rejected the idea that the game is an early title decider.

“There are a lot of points still to play for and different places to go for all three or four contenders to win the Premier League,” he said.

City are looking for another title while United are again searching for answers about how to bridge the gap.

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