Tom Oldfield

Michael Owen and Craig Bellamy rightly grabbed the headlines after the recent titanic Manchester derby as United earned the bragging rights with their winning goal coming in the sixth minute of added time.

But Owen’s last-gasp rescue act, inspired though it was, would not have been necessary if United’s backline had kept their focus. Instead of looking sharp and alert, Rio Ferdinand and company made the type of mistakes that would be more at home in a Sunday morning kickabout.

City’s first goal was a perfect example of the hosts’ poor decision-making. Leading through Wayne Rooney’s calm finish, the Red Devils were on top and making the visitors toil. Then goalkeeper Ben Foster dropped the first clanger of the afternoon. Collecting a careless through ball from Joleon Lescott just outside the area, he dawdled before trying to dribble the ball back into the area.

Unfortunately for Foster, former team-mate Carlos Tevez was quickly on the scene, dispossessing him before he could pick up the ball inside the box and laying on the equaliser for Gareth Barry. A simple hoof out of play would have sufficed but, in choosing the trickier option, Foster instead handed City a lifeline that they had scarcely deserved up to that point.

Buoyed by this, Mark Hughes’ side rallied. Suddenly we had a real classic on our hands as the tackles flew in and tempers were frayed. In an instant, the early United momentum had been lost and, with Tevez leading the City surge, it was not until the second half that the hosts regained the upper hand.

While it might be a little harsh to single out John O’Shea for allowing Bellamy too much space for City’s splendid second goal, there can be no question over the lapses for the visitors’ third, again courtesy of the little Welshman. Robinho and Emmanuel Adebayor were sidelined but Bellamy was doing his best to ensure they were not missed.

From United’s perspective, though, it was a horror show. Ferdinand slipped back to the West Ham Rio with a mindless flick, allowing Martin Petrov to release Bellamy. The front man left Ferdinand for dead but, bearing down on the United goal at a tight angle, he still had plenty to do. Cue Foster’s second helping hand of the afternoon. The England stopper darted from his line but got his body position all wrong, allowing Bellamy a gap at the near post that should never have been afforded to him. 3-3.

Of course, the story ended happily for United with Owen’s clinical winner from Ryan Giggs’ perfect pass before Bellamy landed himself in hot water for lashing out at a pitch invader. Hughes fumed that the home side had been given an extra 90 seconds of added time beyond the indicated four minutes – but, in truth, referee Martin Atkinson was correct to keep the game going as City’s celebrations after Bellamy’s second goal ate up around 45 seconds on top of substitutions and the usual rather blatant time-wasting.

And so the United attack bailed out the defence in what Sir Alex Ferguson tagged ‘probably the best derby of all time’. Going forward, the hosts were superb, with Giggs and Darren Fletcher particularly impressive, and Shay Given needed to produce a string of inspired saves to deny Dimitar Berbatov on several occasions. It sounds bizarre to say so after City shipped four sloppy goals, but Given was outstanding.

Ferguson will be worried, though, by the costly defensive mistakes from United that marred the performance. Admittedly, the intensity of a Manchester derby tends to cause more nerves and the pace of the game put both sets of players under real pressure. Yet these are not acceptable excuses for one of Europe’s elite clubs – and Ferguson knows it. When you are playing with the big boys, one slip up can be fatal.

Which leads to one of the major dilemmas for the United manager over the coming months as the champions seek to make up ground on leaders Chelsea, who improved to six wins out of six against Tottenham on Sunday. Aside from Ferdinand’s questionable fitness, Ferguson’s key decision will come when Edwin van der Sar returns to full fitness after breaking a finger on his left hand and puts himself back in contention for the number 1 jersey. Foster has had some bright moments while deputising for the Dutchman and undoubtedly possesses potential for a bright domestic and international future – but United are missing van der Sar’s calming presence.

Consecutive wins over Arsenal, Tottenham and City reflect United’s increasing confidence in the post-Ronaldo era but supporters will be praying that the backline return to the miserly standards they set for much of last season. Van der Sar was a key component then and, with Ferguson desperate for his side to tighten up at the back, Foster may find himself back on the bench as the season heads into October.

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