Jose Mourinho condemned Pep Guardiola to his worst sequence of results as a manager – six games without a win now for Manchester City – as Manchester United triumphed in this charged, high-stakes derby to take their place in the last eight of the EFL Cup.
That is one for Mourinho to toast. He will certainly afford himself a smile at Guardiola’s unwanted record of three defeats and three draws as he returns to his five-star accommodation at the nearby Lowry Hotel. That “little bit of a disaster” of his living arrangements will suddenly feel a bit more comfortable for Mourinho, as will the pressure of a job that had begun to weigh heavy. In the goldfish bowl of Manchester, he will feel like a big fish again.
“One-nil in your cup final,” chanted the City fans and they know – as do United – that this competition is the fourth most important of the four both clubs will compete in this season. They also know their team was far less near full-strength than their closest rivals.
But bragging rights from a derby win are bragging rights – and this meant a lot to Mourinho, especially when you have been beaten comprehensively at home by your neighbours already this uneven season.
Instead, Mourinho has one over on Guardiola, and, he will hope, can use it as a re-set for United’s campaign after a vastly-improved second-half display and a deserved victory. That is why the stakes were so high.
A scan of the match programme brought an unusual statement from Mourinho: an apology. Three times, in fact, he said “sorry” or even “extremely sorry” for the humiliating 4-0 loss away at Chelsea that had sharpened the focus even more on this tie.
A scan of the team-sheet brought more familiar news, however, as Henrikh Mkhitaryan had, once more, not made the 18-man squad, even though he had gathered with the rest of the players during their match-day preparations. United struggling but still no place for the Armenian? No place either for the injured Wayne Rooney or, more worryingly for Mourinho, Eric Bailly, whose knee injury will rule him out for two months, with that absence prolonged further by his involvement in the African Cup of Nations.
Interestingly, there was no Chris Smalling, who had endured such a torrid time at Stamford Bridge, with three left-footers in defence and a fear that this would lead to a lack of co-ordination.
As for City, Guardiola mixed and matched more than Mourinho but was still able to field a prodigiously talented, expensively-acquired team, led by Vincent Kompany, playing back-to-back games for the first time since spring, and one enhanced by a formidable bench which added to the air of uncertainty over how this would all unfold.
Within 70 seconds there was a chance as Jesús Navas whipped in a cross and Kelechi Iheanacho threw himself between those makeshift centre-halves of Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo but could only direct his header over the bar. There was pace on the ball but Iheanacho should have done better from six yards out.
It proved an early sign, though, that City were far more fluent and comfortable. Michael Carrick was fortunate that he did not concede a penalty when he caught Aleix García as the impressive 19-year-old Spanish midfielder ran on to a through ball.
Finally, United gained a foothold. Juan Mata earned a free-kick three yards outside the penalty area but it was trundled weakly into the City wall by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, which summed up the Swede’s contribution to the first quarter of the game, as did a wildly over-hit through ball for Marcus Rashford and a shot deflected over by Nicolás Otamendi which lacked its usual oomph. Even so, the fact Ibrahimovic was playing showed how high the stakes were for United.
But there was very little pattern and even less pace to United’s play as their attempts to push on and build some pressure broke down time and time again. There was a lack of aggression, even a meekness, as the number of misplaced passes and lack of co-ordination racked up. In fairness, City were barely more threatening as their early promise faded.
Finally, Ibrahimovic did raise himself with a smart through ball to Rashford, but the youngster was crowded out by Pablo Maffeo, while another poor touch by Iheanacho allowed Rojo to block as the City striker was bearing down on goal. Again, he should have done better.
Kompany did not return for the second half, with Aleksandar Kolarov taking his place and the captain’s armband.
As City adjusted, United almost made the breakthrough, with Ibrahimovic nipping in ahead of Otamendi to slip a pass through to Pogba, whose shot on the run and from a tight angle was tipped on to his near post by Willy Caballero. It was the closest either team had gone and it encouraged the home side. They seemed more energised, more purposeful.
As United pressed on, Ander Herrera scooped the ball through to Mata, whose driven cross was unconvincingly punched out by Caballero, only for the Spanish midfielder to then miscue his shot.
But United kept up the tempo and they claimed their reward.
Ibrahimovic slyly rolled Otamendi with a little nudge and scampered on to prod a pass across goal. Herrera barrelled into Fernando – it looked like a foul but referee Mike Dean ignored it – and the ball ran on for Mata to side-foot, first-time, beyond Caballero and into the net.
It could have been two as United again profited from moving the ball quicker but when Rashford’s cross reached Ibrahimovic, the striker missed the ball.
Guardiola reacted, his frustration growing. On came Raheem Sterling. Then Sergio Agüero, with Mourinho countering defensively as he gave a rare appearance to Morgan Schneiderlin and withdrew his goalscorer, Mata.
United broke away but it was City who were encamped in their rivals’ half. The tension grew but they could not find the breakthrough.