MANCHESTER – Old Trafford rejoiced as the final whistle blew on the 189th Manchester derby.
A win against Manchester City is always something to celebrate. This, however, felt like more for the Manchester United fans.
A come-from-behind 2-1 victory on Saturday was the latest evidence of the team's improvement under manager Erik ten Hag and the potential of an unlikely Premier League title challenge.
“The belief is back and we’re in a good direction," Ten Hag said.
Substitute Jack Grealish had put City ahead in the second half, but goals from Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford secured the points for United and went some way toward avenging the humiliating 6-3 loss to its neighbor in October.
The win also puts United just one point behind defending champion City and up to third in the standings — six points behind leader Arsenal.
For now Ten Hag is dismissing the idea of United being in contention for a first title since 2013. His team's form, however, tells its own story.
“Fans may dream, but we are not. We have to keep our feet on the ground and face that our game has a lot to improve,” the Dutchman said.
Ten Hag was unhappy with the manner in which United allowed City to take control after having the better chances in the first half.
Fernandes' 78th minute equalizer, meanwhile, was contentious after an initial offside decision was overruled.
Rashford was beyond the last man in the buildup to the goal and even though he did not touch the ball, Pep Guardiola and City's players believed the forward had interfered in the play.
“To be honest, for me the first goal is a joke that it is going to be allowed like this,” said City defender Manuel Akanji.
Guardiola suggested the game being played at Old Trafford was a factor in the goal being allowed.
“The decision is they didn’t believe Rashford was intervening in this stadium. This is Old Trafford, we have to play much better, like Anfield, we have to do better,” he said.
The debate over the goal aside, this was another encouraging performance from United to come from a goal down and end a three-game losing streak against City.
United has already beaten Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham this season and has now won nine games in a row.
It has only lost one of 18 games since that derby loss to City in October.
“We improved, that’s obvious. Still a long way to go, a long path to go, a lot of aspects in our game we have to improve, but we’re progressing, that’s quite obvious,” Ten Hag said. “We often talk about teams developing, tactics progressing. One of the main jobs for a manager, for a coaching staff is to work on the mentality of the team and this mentality has a lot of elements. One of them is resilience, the determination of this team is progressing a lot in those facts, dealing with setbacks, dealing with suffering in painful moments and keep going after setbacks like a goal against us.”
This was the sternest test of United's resurgence under Ten Hag, even with City coming off a surprise 2-0 loss to Southampton in the English League Cup on Wednesday.
United had the better chances in the first half, with Rashford having one shot cleared off the line by Akanji after rounding Ederson and then seeing another effort smothered by the City goalkeeper.
City took control after the break and Grealish opened the scoring in the 60th minute, just three minutes after coming on, when he headed in Kevin de Bruyne's cross.
United evened the score against the run of play when Fernandes struck.
Rashford then hit the winner from close range just four minutes later when he converted substitute Alejandro Garnacho's cross.
It was the forward's 16th goal of the season and his eighth in his last seven games.
“After conceding a goal we cannot concede the next one, this is the most important detail we have to improve in the future,” Guardiola said.
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
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