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Paul Pogba

Flashback to the last derby: City 2 United 3

It was the ultimate derby doomsday scenario. Saturday 7 April 2018, walking east from town towards Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium, knowing only too well that three points for our neighbours would earn them a fifth top-flight title. At our direct expense.

“Everybody in the blue side of Manchester knows it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,”
said Vincent Kompany.   
 
To be brutally honest, I only applied for a ticket for the match out of some warped sense of duty. Out of habit. When the unthinkable happened, and the ballot results revealed I was successful (I think the only other away ticket I got that season was Huddersfield in the cup), I had to face up to a stark reality: I'd rather be slugging back absinthe in a dark room than watch Pep Guardiola's brilliant side stroll to victory and win the league.
 
But, of course, I went. Holding on to that hope that United would produce something to defy them. Watching City celebrate the title – with their fans ole-ing and ballooning – would be awful but, on the flipside, it would be a buzz if we spoiled their party.
 
I quickly felt very, very stupid for entertaining those ideas. Within half an hour we were two down, and the goals – a header from Kompany and a clever finish from Ilkay Gundogan – were only the half of it. City were streaming through us every two or three minutes. When United did get hold of the ball, smuggling it over the halfway line felt like scaling K2. If it had been 5-0 at the break, few could have claimed the Blues didn't deserve it. Raheem Sterling, alone, could have nabbed a hat-trick.

Goals: City 2 United 3Video

I don't think I've ever felt lower during a half-time interval. United have had many worse days, plenty of bad defeats, embarrassing results and so on, but the realisation that, over the next 45 minutes, we were going to watch City clinch the league against us – with a cricket score of a result - was stomach-churning. It felt a bit like that Woody Allen joke:
“I’m not afraid of death – I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
 
We were going to watch them try to smash us to bits, to completely eviscerate us in order to consecrate their greatest-ever day. It was like awaiting your own execution. Later, I heard tales of some Reds leaving the ground. Throwing in the towel. I've never left a game early in my life, but I couldn't blame them.
 
Over the stadium PA, City played Inspiral Carpets' 'This Is How It Feels', which, of course, Reds used to adapt to: 'This is how it feels to be City, this is how it feels to be small, this is how it feels when your team wins nothing at all.'
 
The only problem was that the game wasn't over. Many of us wished it was, no question about that.  A 2-0 defeat would have been disappointing, but nowhere near as traumatic as the shelling we looked like receiving. But, still: it wasn’t over.
What happened next was absolutely surreal, and the stuff of United and Manchester derby legend. There's little point rehashing the details here - I'm sure, like me, you've all watched the highlights over and over again. All I'll write is: Pogba, Pogba, Smalling. Oh, and it's always worth mentioning Herrera's chested assist for our first goal - so good that Kompany seemed to get an electric shock from just watching it float past. 
 
Within no time at all, we'd gone from head-in-hands-humiliation to sheer delirium, with bodies cascading down the stairwells in the away end. Weirdly, the City fans went silent. They were still just two goals from the title, with 20-plus minutes remaining. The game wasn’t up.

 

 
But bar David De Gea's late save from Aguero and a penalty claim, United were relatively comfortable. The fans to the left of the away end were stone-faced. Bamboozled. The whole stadium – bar a giddy, security-ringed pocket in the South Stand – was spooked. 
 
By full-time, Blues were in tears. Consoling each other in the stands as the stadium emptied. Away from the prying TV cameras, club officials were reboxing the unused fireworks. Months later, Jose Mourinho suggested he’d seen t-shirts with 'We did it on derby day' ready to go in the players' tunnel.

Ten great goals at City Video

In the away end, hundreds of Reds queued to exit. The delay didn't bother anyone. For 15-20 minutes we sang, unabated. You had to remind yourself that Guardiola's men were still 13 points clear, on schedule for 100 points, with a title imminent.
 
Within half an hour of full-time, after a swift walk down Ashton New Road past dispersing streaks of stunned Blues, we had a few beers and stared at each other in disbelief. Football, bloody hell, etc, etc.
“Typical United,”
said Reds. Blues no doubt murmured their own version.
 
Victories over City – or Liverpool or Leeds for that matter – never require any context. Just beating them is always enough. But this one ranked right up there with the sweetest of all for its remarkable wider context and the simply bonkers in-game narrative.
Chris Smalling on scoring the winner says

"Being able to score right in front of our fans, it’s going to be very hard to beat that moment. You can win a trophy, but in the heat of that moment that was the most amazing feeling. It's something you'll remember forever."

Within 24 second-half minutes, the day morphed from potentially the greatest in City's history into what their official website deemed ‘a dramatic and ultimately crushing Manchester derby’.
 
25 years after Eric conducted the orchestra at Maine Road, another inspired Frenchman, Paul Pogba, had hauled United from despair to euphoria.  
 
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, as another man from across the Channel once wrote. ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same.’

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