Over the past eight months, no Premier League player has taken more absurd and unfounded criticism than Paul Pogba. And no Premier League club has taken more criticism, no qualifiers necessary, than Manchester United. The word of the moment, then, on a sparkling Saturday evening in Manchester, was defiance.
United can do nothing to prevent its fiercest rival from raising the Premier League trophy some time this month, but it can delay Manchester City’s title party. And that’s exactly what it did at the Etihad.
It postponed celebrations with a rampaging comeback, from 2-0 down at halftime to a 3-2 victory courtesy of two goals from Pogba and a winner from Chris Smalling. It held on over a fiery, at times dirty final 20 minutes. It left City fans sobbing in the stands minutes after the final whistle.
And it spared itself the ignominy of watching its Noisy Neighbors, who are noisier than ever these days, celebrate a championship at its expense with six weeks to spare.
“We don’t want to be the clowns that are standing there watching them lift the trophy,” Smalling said postgame of manager Jose Mourinho’s message to his side. And that wish, thanks to United’s character, came true.
City will still lift it sometime soon. Mourinho congratulated Pep Guardiola in advance after the game. But after 45 minutes on Saturday, the party was already underway. City had been as resplendent as ever. Vincent Kompany headed the hosts into the lead with a goal eerily reminiscent of one he scored against United en route to the title in 2012:
Ilkay Gundogan then doubled the lead with a beautiful spin and finish past David De Gea.
For 45 minutes, it was all so poetic. So marvelously poetic. Kompany, the club captain who has battled so many injuries since that day in 2012, appeared to have sent City on its way. Gundogan, a player similarly bedeviled by rotten injury luck, capped off an attacking move emblematic of City’s brilliance.
United didn’t have a single shot in the first half, on target or off. City easily could have had five goals. Raheem Sterling, alternating with Bernardo Silva in the false-nine position, missed multiple clear-cut chances.
“The first half was terrible,” Smalling said after the match. “We could have been out of sight.”
But United stormed back on the shoulders of Pogba. The first of his two goals in less than three minutes was wonderful. He ran onto a seemingly clairvoyant chest-pass from Ander Herrera, and deftly lifted his finish over Ederson.
Two minutes later, he flicked a header past Ederson using the exact blue portion of his hair that had been ridiculously pinpointed as problematic. And he booted the ball into the air, lifting his hand to his ear, implicitly wondering, Where is the criticism now?
A draw would have been enough for United to put City’s party on hold. But the Red Devils, ascendent, went one better. Smalling, who had been beaten by Kompany on the first goal, got his revenge with an emphatic finish. De Gea kept the score at 3-2 with one stunning save.
And United, as defiant as ever, triumphed.
Its season hasn’t been a success. City’s has. Saturday won’t do anything to change that. But Saturday was meaningful. That’s why Guardiola only rested three starters with an eye on Tuesday’s Champions League second leg against Liverpool, as opposed to rotating his entire 11. That’s why City fans were so dejected after the match. It’s why United supporters stuck around to savor the moment.
On Saturday, ever so temporarily, Manchester was red. And that’s all that mattered.
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