Saudi Classico offers Al-Hilal last chance to halt march of runaway leaders Al-Ittihad
In the final 15 minutes of Manchester United’s 4-1 defeat at Manchester City, the hosts had 92 percent possession.
It came in a second half of such dominance that Pep Guardiola said of his Premier League leaders: “If it is not our best, I don’t know what we have to do.”
While City, who retained their six-point advantage over Liverpool, offered perfection, United were pitiful as they demonstrated once more how far they have fallen from their previous status as kings of English football.
In the tradition of protesting Real Madrid supporters, it would have been no surprise to see white handkerchiefs raised aloft by their angry followers at the end of this embarrassment at the Etihad.
They were disgusted and disturbed by what they had witnessed — and sadly often have felt these emotions since their last Premier League title win in 2013 and Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
United used to have a banner at Old Trafford taunting the number of years their neighbors had failed to win a trophy.
It ended at 35 when City won the FA Cup in 2011 — and a year later they were league champions when Sergio Aguero’s injury-time winner over QPR pipped Ferguson’s side on a dramatic final day.
That marked a momentous shift in fortunes as City have since lifted four league titles to that one of United — and the Red Devils’ empire has crumbled as their Abu Dhabi-owned rivals have created a dynasty.
Now United are being mocked on and off the field.
As City fans proudly display their own banner — “Sheikh Mansour Manchester Thanks You for 10 Great Years” — it has highlighted a decade of dominance to contrast United’s decline.
“We will, one day, get this club back to where it deserves to be,” wrote keeper David De Gea on Twitter after the chastening loss.
“Today was another bad moment in a difficult season, but when we still have this shirt to defend we will not give up.”
But give up they did on Sunday as Algerian Riyad Mahrez claimed two goals — taking his season’s tally to 21 — in the second period to give the scoreline a better reflection of proceedings.
It was unforgivable, especially to former United players used to seeing more flair and fight, and concerned it could take a long time for them to return to the top.
“There are players out there who shouldn’t play for Manchester United again,” said former captain Roy Keane.
“There is no hiding place in top-level sport. You expect them surely to play with a bit of pride, but that’s a reflection of where the team is at the moment. They’re so far behind other teams.”
Oscar Wilde once wrote that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” and interim boss Ralf Rangnick tried to copy Guardiola’s playbook with his starting line-up and tactics.
He used a false nine in Bruno Fernandes, aggressive pressing and, in a tight first-half, it almost worked.
But this style is an art form and United’s looked fake due to their defensive vulnerability and inability to maintain such intensity for the whole match like their opponents.
In Kevin De Bruyne, City too had a Rembrandt to create a masterpiece.
Displaying the combined qualities of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, the brilliant Belgian was inspirational and ably supported by a classy cast from back to front.
United no longer have the personnel or aura to match that — and desperately need someone with Keane’s passion, leadership and drive right now.
“There is a gap between the two teams,” admitted Rangnick, who has struggled to lift the side since replacing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in November.
That is obvious and will only grow wider unless action is taken this summer to address a lack of first-team quality, rebuild confidence and release those not clearly aware of just what is expected of a United player.
As Peter Schmeichel, who played for both United and City, added: “Far too many players are either not good enough or don’t care enough.”
Solskjaer notably won all three of his meetings with City at the Etihad as United boss — and there are new scapegoats aplenty at Old Trafford during the current malaise.
Be it the 37-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo for failing to repeat the performances — or live up to expectations — that created a footballing legend. He missed the 187th derby with a hip injury that Rangnick had to defend, amid debate about whether it was true or not.
Then there is Paul Pogba. No doubt gifted as he showed in assisting Jadon Sancho’s goal, but his ability and strengths are somewhat unsuited — or under-appreciated — to this side and he looks set to depart in the summer on a free transfer.
Also under scrutiny is £85 million center-back Harry Maguire, whose unconvincing displays have prompted questions about his place in the team, let alone as captain.
He said afterwards: “The lads are devastated in there. We know that we’ve got to go on a run, we’ve got to go and pick up win after win and we’re more than capable of doing it. But we’ve got to show it on the pitch.”
The blame for United’s problems does not rest with Maguire, Ronaldo or Pogba alone, but as a team and club.
They have spent enough, but been left behind by City and Liverpool by making wrong decisions and challenging for a top-four place instead of major trophies.
United’s name and brand will always remain strong, but they now lack the DNA of those successful teams of old. They need to reset, and rediscover and restore that dynamism and desire to be winners again.
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