The bedsheet bearing the painted legend “power shift” — the words used ad nauseum last spring to describe what Manchester City’s title was supposed to signify — also included a neat arrangement of the letters MUFC, and it was not the only reminder last night of how premature intimations of blue supremacy have proved to be.
The Old Trafford advertising hoardings carried the name of the sponsor who has just signed away £180m to have its name emblazoned on a training complex which is one of the most closely guarded and secretive citadels of Manchester United. Such is the size of the task Manchester City face in shifting the tectonic plates of football in these parts.
There was none of the fear that Sir Alex Ferguson exhibited in the fixture against City at the Etihad Stadium last April, when the team he sent out looked like one of those built to survive in inhospitable corners of Europe, and that meant City were able to display bursts of the sumptuous football that their neat, intelligent players are capable of, as they drop into the pockets of penalty box space.
Carlos Tevez, one of the few of City’s players who we can actually say has been better in this season than last, was a slippery customer for Phil Jones, working back to goal, squeezing passes out right where James Milner offered some early presence.
David Silva was the most evasive of them all, drifting easily in and out of the box and creating turf to work on. And in among them all was Gareth Barry, the one who sometimes seems to be English football’s forgotten man, shifted out of the England team to make space for Tom Cleverley and not really seeming to belong to the glitterati of the planet’s richest club.
His contribution belied the image, though. Barry was the midfielder sent forward to join the attack, leaving Yaya Toure behind, in the first half, and yet also the one who made the runs to track back, accelerating past the less mobile Ivorian.
He was the one who clipped an incisive ball which Samir Nasri could not attach some force to and there was something very fitting about him playing the decisive part in the goal, early in the second half.
Barry does not so much sprint as charge with the ball and so it was that he seized on Ryan Giggs’ error in possession and levelled the cross which Milner sent in.
United were beginning to emerge from the trance Silva had them in and also to counter attack with danger, even if Wayne Rooney was in one of those ugly mindsets which leaves you quite certain that he won’t affect the course of the night. His two-footed tackle on Milner — for which he would have been dismissed had he had actually connected — was inexplicable.
When the equaliser came, you could foresee Roberto Mancini’s protestations about the soft free-kick, drawn by Rafael, which delivered it, though that was before Sergio Aguero provided the night’s single moment of brilliance, latching onto the ball he guided across 15 yards of penalty box in a diagonal run which concluded with one of those finishes, defying gravity, which are his speciality.
City were worth a win which bears out their manager’s assumption that there is no great gulf between the sides, but it is permanent, or at least frequent, intensity which is the mark of champions: “the edge”, as they call it in elite sport. And though City’s first back-to-back wins here since the Mercer/Allison days brought five in a row will offer encouragement that the balance of power has no more shifted this season than last, the fact remains that Aguero’s run was a rare specimen in this campaign of the beguiling talent which is the mark of champions.
Aguero wheeled away to his supporters, tugging at his shirt in a way which conjured memories of that one he whirled above his head last May, yet the overwhelming sentiment for City fans will be: “If only...” They sang they were “the pride of Manchester” and — as their players left the field — “championes”. But they will awake this morning to view a Premier League table which reveals them to be 12 points behind United.