MANCHESTER – Success for Manchester United these days is being the spoiler as Manchester City goes on to eventually claim the league titles.
City manager Pep Guardiola's pursuit of a world-record winning streak ended after United won the derby 2-0 on Sunday.
A penalty won after 36 seconds when Gabriel Jesus tripped Anthony Martial was converted by Bruno Fernandes, and Luke Shaw netted five minutes into the second half to end City's 21-match winning run in all competitions.
“Scoring in the first minute is perfect," Fernandes said after scoring his 17th penalty in 13 months at United, “because City have to try a little bit more, we have more space to counter and the big threat we have is the counter.”
The complexion of the Premier League has drastically changed since City's last defeat 106 days earlier at Tottenham left the team in 11th place — eight points behind the London club at the top.
After a club-record 28 matches unbeaten, losing now is more a matter of pride for City as well as missing out on catching the mark of 27 consecutive wins set by Welsh side The New Saints in 2016. City has not only climbed to the summit but built a lead that meant its second-placed neighbor only trimmed the gap to 11 points with victory at the Etihad Stadium.
“Today we lost and we will be the news, but the news is 21 victories in a row," Guardiola said. “This result is going to help us a lot to understand how difficult it is. We knew it, but sometimes you have to not win one game to realize and the next one is important."
With such a commanding lead and only 10 games remaining, United has probably only just delayed the moment City dethrones Liverpool as champion. Just like three years ago when Jose Mourinho's derby win prevented City sealing the title that April day.
But it's only two months since United harbored ambitions of its own of lifting the trophy — for the first time since 2013 — when it sat in first place. The title challenge has melted away for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side and United will likely be consigned to seeing City crowned champions for the fourth time since United's name was last etched into the trophy.
“Of course they are too far ahead to think that we could catch them,” Solskjaer said. "Last year we caught 15 points on Leicester (for fourth place) but these are a different proposition.”
But there is no longer a vast gulf when these two sides meet in the Premier League. United has won three of the last derbies and drawn the other.
It's almost a year to the day since United also beat City 2-0 at Old Trafford, the last time they played in a full stadium or any fans were allowed into a Manchester stadium due to the pandemic.
The emptiness of the stadium allows the sounds from the field to sidelines to be heard like rarely before. City substitute Kyle Walker tried in vain to put off Fernandes — yelling “He's saved it!" as the United midfielder stepped up to take the second-minute penalty. City goalkeeper Ederson didn't manage to keep it out.
It was Fernandinho leaping out of his seat shouting “For (expletive)'s sake!" after a foul by United captain Harry Maguire on Gabriel Jesus.
The City bench was getting ready to celebrate when Rodri struck from outside of the penalty area at the start of the second half, only for the ball to clip the crossbar.
And soon it was United celebrating again at the home of its fiercest rival. United goalkeeper Dean Henderson threw the ball out to Shaw, who was gifted time and space to run into the penalty area. After a one-two with Marcus Rashford, the left back scored his first league goal since 2018, putting the ball through Rodri's legs.
“When he goes forward on those runs he is unstoppable,” Solskjaer said. “He’s improving all the time.”
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