There have been false dawns before in the bleak, bleak years since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. A Champions League victory at the Parc des Princes sticks in the mind some time after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had been appointed.
That was hailed as a moment of rebirth for Manchester United, a sign that they were healing. It was no such thing. They had still not hit rock bottom.
But at Old Trafford on Saturday afternoon, when United came from behind to beat Manchester City 2-1 with two late goals in four delirious minutes to move to within a point of Pep Guardiola’s side in second place, Old Trafford was lost in glorious tumult and the evidence seemed incontrovertible: whether winning the title this season is a step too far or not, United are back.
Marcus Rashford scored the winner as Manchester United came from behind to beat Man City
This was a magnificent victory for Erik ten Hag and his side against the champions, their noisy neighbours and the team that has done more than any other to underline their decline in the decade since Ferguson’s departure ended an era.
It was not a fluke, either. United deserved it. They dominated the first half, blanched a little in the face of City’s fierce second half recovery and then hit back with a vengeance.
The match was another personal triumph for Marcus Rashford, who scored the winner in the 82nd minute. Four minutes earlier, he had had the presence of mind to step aside when he realised he was offside to allow Bruno Fernandes to sweep home United’s equaliser after Jack Grealish had put City in front.
Rashford has now scored eight goals in seven games and in nine home games in a row. His form is phenomenal, his return to prominence a delight for all those who have remained fans of his talent. Some may have doubted him but he has re-emerged as one of best strikers in Europe and he has so much confidence and belief flowing through him at the moment that no one in the Premier League can handle him.
Erik ten Hag’s team continued their brilliant run with their biggest win of the season
United have now won nine games in a row and as Ferguson watched on from the stand, he knew that this victory meant United had equalled their longest winning run in all competitions since he stepped down.
United have lost only once in 19 games since a 6-3 defeat by City at the Etihad in early October. Ten Hag’s side has come a long, long way since then.
United harried City into some early mistakes. Their high press and the relentless energy that was missing from their game for so long even forced Bernardo Silva into a loose pass after ten minutes that set up United’s first chance. Rashford seized on his misplaced pass and fed the ball to Christian Eriksen. Eriksen played in Bruno Fernandes but the Portugal midfielder dragged his shot across goal.
City dominated possession but neither that nor the squally conditions dampened United’s enthusiasm for the contest. When they lost the ball in midfield, the crowd groaned as City launched a lightning counter-attack but United chased it down. Fred closed De Bruyne down and intercepted his attempted pass. Then, as De Bruyne tried to regain control, Fred dispossessed him with a sliding tackle. The crowd roared its approval.
Old Trafford was rocking as United announced that they are well and truly back
Competing is the first requirement and it has been a while since United seemed to have the stomach for the fight. They have got it back now, though, and even if they have not caught City up in other ways, they are compensating with the rebirth of a defiant attitude. There was a time when United seemed to think they didn’t need to work as hard as other teams but that time has gone.
United spurned a golden chance to take the lead ten minutes before half time. Fernandes lofted a ball over the top of the City defence and Rashford raced on to it. Ederson rushed out to try to clear it but soon realised he had been hopelessly over-ambitious and pulled out of the challenge as Rashford knocked the ball past him. Rashford advanced on goal from the left and tried to slide the ball past Manuel Akanji on the line but he hit it too close to the City defender, who hacked it to safety.
A few minutes later, Rashford was through again. This time, he was released by a perfectly weighted pass from Eriksen and he accelerated away from Rodri with a searing burst of pace. Rashford took a heavy touch on the edge of the area, Ederson came out to meet him and when Rashford tried to lift the ball over him with a dink, Ederson flung up his left arm and disrupted the flight of the ball. Rashford threw up his arms in frustration.
Just before half time, Rashford was at the centre of attention again. He chased a ball on the left touchline and when Walker shepherded it out of play, Rashford pulled up awkwardly and appeared to be clutching his left hamstring. Rashford lay flat on his back, pounding his fist on the turf. In the stands, the cameras caught England manager Gareth Southgate wearing a worried frown.
Rashford emerged for the second half, though, and it was Anthony Martial who gave way to Antony. The move did not pay dividends immediately and City started the second half much more positively. They made their best chance of the match so far soon after the break when De Bruyne and Riyad Mahrez played a lovely one-two on the right touchline and De Bruyne floated a pinpoint pass to the back post. Bernardo Silva leapt to head it but instead of going for goal himself, he tried to nod it across goal to Phil Foden and the danger was cleared.
City were transformed. Foden was substituted for Grealish and City’s strong start to the half got even stronger. As soon as United got the ball, City won it back. They laid siege to United’s goal and after an hour, they took the lead. Mahrez and De Bruyne combined again. Mahrez slid the ball into the Belgian’s path and he evaded the attentions of Casemiro, got to the byline and lifted a sublime chip to the back post where Grealish rose to head it emphatically past David de Gea. Grealish had been on the pitch for 193 seconds.
Slowly, United began to recover their poise and try to force their way back into the game. The introduction of the pace of Alejandro Garnacho helped to stretch City and cause their defence discomfort. It stemmed the tide of City’s attacks, too, and twelve minutes from time and still against the run of play, United were level.
Rashford ran on to a through ball but he realised as he closed in on it that he would be offside. As Rashford shaped to shoot and Akanji and Walker converged on him, he stepped aside and allowed Fernandes to run on to it instead. Fernandes hit it first time and his shot curled beyond Ederson. As he wheeled away to celebrate, he saw linesman Darren Cann flagging for offside against Rashford.
United protested furiously against the offside flag and referee Stuart Attwell ran over to consult with Cann. Attwell decided that Rashford had not been interfering with play and allowed the goal to stand. United celebrated wildly, and now City protested furiously. But the goal stood.
Four minutes later, United were ahead. Garnacho burst down the left and tried to cross but the ball hit Akanji high on the chest. It rebounded to Garnacho, who squared up Nathan Ake, turned past him on the outside and squirted another cross into the box. This time, it was low and this time, City’s defenders had left Rashford all alone on the edge of the six yard box. He stuck out his right boot and rifled his shot past Ederson. Old Trafford erupted with joy.