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Marouane Fellaini in the clear over Sergio Aguero 'spit' during City United derby

By Ian Herbert

Manchester United's Marouane Fellaini is likely to escape a Football Association punishment for an apparent spitting incident in his 10-man side's 1-0 fourth consecutive Premier League derby defeat, which left them reflecting on their worst start to a Premier League season in 28 years.

The United manager, Louis Van Gaal, defended the Belgian, who was at the centre of a similar controversy when Pablo Zabaleta lay on the floor during United's 3-0 derby defeat at Old Trafford in March.

"I have heard that it is a question on social media," Van Gaal said. "But already the TV has shown that he is shouting and sometimes when you shout there's a little bit of - what do you call? - saliva (that comes out) with it. I don't think that he's a spitting figure."

It was a deeply unsavoury moment, with Fellaini stooping angrily to place his head next to Aguero's face, as he lay on the ground, and seemingly launching accusations of gamesmanship at the player, whom he had just fouled in the area with a kick to the back of the foot.

The Football Association may examine the footage but it is unlikely to take action against Fellaini.

There is no emphatic evidence of deliberate spitting and City manager Manuel Pellegrini's downplaying of the incident may also be significant. "No, no, I don't know about that. It's something I don't know about," Pellegrini said. To the question of whether Aguero had mentioned the incident he replied: "Maybe."

Van Gaal's censure was reserved for his defender Chris Smalling, whose actions he described as "stupid and "not that smart" after the England player's dismissal condemned United to defeat.

Smalling's second yellow card, for a needless challenge on James Milner, came a mere eight minutes after the 24-year-old had been booked for deliberately blocking a Joe Hart kick.

Van Gaal was withering about Smalling's foul on Milner, who was unlikely to do damage in the situation.

"When you have a yellow card you have to deal with that, you know that, you cannot do what he has done with the second yellow card," Van Gaal said. "That is not very smart. What can I say?"

When asked whether Smalling had apologised to his team-mates, Van Gaal said: "He said it very humbly. You can only accept it. But nevertheless it was in my opinion not so smart."

Smalling impressed on his return from injury against Chelsea last week and he was playing relatively well before his two moments of madness at the Etihad Stadium.

And Van Gaal's defensive problems were compounded when Marcos Rojo - who had a desperate afternoon - dislocated his shoulder during a wild challenge on Martin Demichelis and was ruled out for a month.

United ended the game with Paddy McNair and Michael Carrick, whose only football this season has been a reserve team game at West Ham, in the centre of defence.

Smalling will miss Saturday's home game against Crystal Palace, when United may also be without Phil Jones, Jonny Evans, Rafael da Silva and Rojo - all injured.

Van Gaal is likely to play McNair and Carrick against Palace, with Tyler Blackett seemingly lower in the pecking order.

His side's 13 points from 10 games is the lowest since the eight from 10 that earned Ron Atkinson the sack in the winter of 1986.

But despite Chelsea already having double United's points tally, the manager insisted that his side have been "very close but not close enough" to the leaders and City in the past two weeks.

"We have to make steps to improve," Van Gaal declared.

United's 10-man recovery, which put City under serious threat in the closing stages, certainly provided more evidence that the side are building from last season, though their defence is a continual liability.

Van Gaal, though, returned to his much repeated complaint about his own side.

"I think our problem is that in the first half we gave too many unnecessary balls away in positions that we can hold the ball easily.

"That we call a positional game. That we have to do better," he said.

"So, I was not so pleased with the first half. But at half-time I didn't mention that because we had to coach for the second half.

"And I have seen a willpower of this team that I said to the players was fantastic but we still have only 13 points out of 10 games, which is not very much."

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