Manchester City v Manchester United 2006/07

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Barclays Premier League

5th May 2007

Attendance 47,244

Scorer Ronaldo(33 pen)

City Isaksson, Onuoha, Distin, Dunne, Ball, Hamann, Johnson, Ireland, Beasley, Vassell, Mpenza – subs Sun(45), Dickov(68), Sinclair(60), Weaver(unused), Samaras(unused)

United Van der Sar, Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, Heinze, Giggs, Scholes, Carrick, Ronaldo, Rooney, Smith – subs Fletcher(73), O’Shea(87), Kuszczak(unused), Richardson(unused), Solskjaer(unused)

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Does it really matter where, when and how the medals are secured? Does it matter that Manchester United’s players could be enjoying a siesta on a welcome day off and Sir Alex Ferguson will be patrolling the golf course if weather permits? All that matters is, the finish line is in sight. United secured the required win in the den of their neighbours and if Chelsea do not win at Arsenal this afternoon, they will be over the line. Even if Chelsea can delay the passing of the baton back to the Old Trafford team after three seasons of London champions, United will need only a point from their two remaining league matches, at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday and at home to West Ham on Sunday. Deliverance here came courtesy of two penalties that went in their favour – Cristiano Ronaldo scored and Edwin van der Sar blocked – and the United contingent celebrated with the conviction of a team who know that their work is all but done, the players hurling shirts and clenching fists in front of their supporters, with Ferguson on the pitch grinning wildly behind them. This was the perfect antidote to the deflation inflicted by Kaka and company in the Champions League last week.
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It has been an emotionally charged few days. Ferguson summed up his team’s efforts with the phrase ‘pure courage’. It certainly took bravery for Ronaldo to withstand the full force of Michael Ball, especially on the back of a stinker at the San Siro last week.
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In the frenetic opening moments, Ball took the opportunity to aim a sly and ugly stamp into Ronaldo’s midriff while the double player of the year was grounded. The thought occurred that it was just as well Joey Barton was not in the vicinity. Ferguson railed on the touchline. The City fans wailed back. The temperature soared. What must Jose Mourinho have thought watching on television? A symbol of game on? Hardly. It was more of a clue as to what would decide this crucial instalment of the Premiership quest. Ball was on a mission to stop Ronaldo more by foul means than fair. Unfortunately for City, they had no other means of squaring up to United. This particular duel aside, it was too cagey a spectacle to set the pulses racing. United were comfortable, if tired. City were toothless. Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand struck the bar from set pieces in the opening 25 minutes.
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United’s breakthrough arrived shortly after and it was no surprise to see the joint catalysts were Ronaldo and his gritty shadow. When Smith’s crossfield pass found Ronaldo, the overture to his dribble consisted of two stepovers – evidently a red rag to Ball’s bull. The City left-back crowned a malicious performance when he dived in and naively kicked at Ronaldo’s foot. Rob Styles pointed for a penalty without hesitation and the boy himself relished the chance to put United in front. Ronaldo, hardly one to keep things simple if there is some showmanship to be had, used the old Robbie Fowler routine. He stepped forward,
 stopped, then whacked his spot-kick low into the corner. It was his seventeenth Premiership goal of a campaign Ferguson described as ‘a fantastic season for the boy’. There was little evidence that City could respond to peg United back, considering the closest they came to troubling Van der Sar until their 80th-minute penalty was a volley from Emile Mpenza aimed nicely at the goalkeeper’s chest. Stuart Pearce tried to inject a fraction more energy when he replaced the creaking Dietmar Hamann with Sun Jihai at the interval. But the second half served up more of the same as United stroked the ball around without exerting too much of what was left of their mental and physical power after arriving home deflated from Milan at 5am on Thursday.
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Ten minutes from time, United’s title advantage hung in the balance as Ball jinked into the area and crashed into Wes Brown. Styles awarded the second penalty of the match. Thousands of Chelsea fans willed Darius Vassell to do the honours, but the former England striker shot straight down the middle of the goal, enabling Van der Sar to pull off a theatrical save with his legs. And the Dutchman knew it, roaring to the heavens before the ball had even been cleared. And so the chance for City to end their uneasy run without a goal at home was dashed. They have not scored at the City of Manchester Stadium since New Year’s Day. On this evidence they may not until 2008. ‘Putting the ball in the back of the net is our Achilles’ heel,’ lamented Pearce afterwards. ‘It is what we have to address going into next season.’ Unsurprisingly, the stadium was half empty by the time the City players reemerged for a sheepish lap of honour. Their fans may feel like hibernating over the next few days. Apart from the handful who left the ground in the free City scarves that had been handed out singing ‘We’re all going to Wembley’. AMY LAWRENCE WRITING FOR THE OBSERVER 6TH MAY 2007

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