OLIVER HOLT: Whether winning the title this season is a step too far or not, Man United are back

OLIVER HOLT: Whether winning the title this season is a step too far or not, Man United are back

There have been false dawns before in the bleak, bleak years since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. A Champions League victory at the Parc des Princes sticks in the mind for a while after Ole Gunnar Solskjær was appointed.

It was hailed as a moment of rebirth for Manchester United, a sign that they were healing. There was no such thing. They still hadn’t hit rock bottom.

But at Old Trafford on Saturday afternoon, when United came from behind to beat Manchester City 2-1 with two late goals in four miserable minutes to move within a point of Pep Guardiola’s side in second place, Old Trafford was lost in glorious tumult and the evidence seemed incontrovertible: whether winning the title this season is a step too far or not, United are back.

Marcus Rashford scored the winner as Manchester United came from behind to beat Man City

Marcus Rashford scored the winner as Manchester United came from behind to beat Man City

It was a magnificent victory for Erik ten Hag and his side against the champions, their noisy neighbors and the team that has done more than anything else to underline their decline in the decade since Ferguson’s departure ended an era.

It wasn’t a fluke either. United deserved it. They dominated the first half, paled slightly in the face of City’s ferocious second-half recovery and then hit back with a vengeance.

The match was another personal triumph for Marcus Rashford, who scored the winner in the 82nd minute. Four minutes earlier he had had the presence of mind to step aside when he realized he was offside to allow Bruno Fernandes to sweep home United’s equalizer after Jack Grealish had put City ahead.

Rashford has now scored eight goals in seven games and in nine consecutive home games. His form is phenomenal, his return to prominence is a delight for all those who have remained fans of his talent. Some may have doubted him, but he has re-emerged as one of the best strikers in Europe and he has so much confidence and belief flowing through him at the moment that nobody in the Premier League can handle him.

United have now won nine games in a row and, as Ferguson watched from the stands, he knew this victory meant United had equaled their longest winning run in all competitions since his retirement.

United have lost just once in 19 games since a 6-3 loss to City at the Etihad in early October. Ten Hag’s side has come a long, long way since then.

United plagued City into some early mistakes. Their high pressing and the relentless energy missing from their game for so long even forced Bernardo Silva into a loose pass after ten minutes that set up United’s first chance. Rashford grabbed his misplaced pass and fed the ball to Christian Eriksen. Eriksen played in Bruno Fernandes, but Portugal’s midfielder dragged the shot over the goal.

City dominated possession, but neither that nor the poor conditions dampened United’s enthusiasm for the game. Losing the ball in midfield, the crowd groaned as City launched a lightning counter attack, but United chased it down. Fred closed down De Bruyne and intercepted his attempted pass. As De Bruyne tried to regain control, Fred dispossessed him with a sliding tackle. The crowd roared their approval.

Old Trafford was rocking when United announced they are back

Old Trafford was rocking when United announced they are back

Competing is the first requirement and it has been a while since United looked like they had the stomach for the game. They’ve got it back now, though, and while they haven’t caught City up in other ways, they’re making up for it with the rebirth of a defiant attitude. There was a time when United seemed to think they didn’t have to work as hard as other teams, but that time has gone.

United took a golden chance to take the lead ten minutes before the break. Fernandes lifted a ball over the top of the City defense and Rashford raced on to it. Ederson rushed out to try and clear it, but soon realized he had been hopelessly over-ambitious and pulled out of the challenge when Rashford tapped the ball past him. Rashford advanced on goal from the left and tried to push the ball past Manuel Akanji on the line, but he hit it too close to the City defender, who hacked it to safety.

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A few minutes later, Rashford was through again. This time he was released by a perfectly weighted pass from Eriksen, and he accelerated away from Rodri at searing pace. Rashford took a heavy touch on the edge of the area, Ederson came out to meet him and when Rashford tried to lift the ball over him with a dink, Ederson threw up his left arm and disrupted the flight of the ball. Rashford threw up his arms in frustration.

Just before the break, Rashford was the center of attention again. He chased a ball down the left touchline and when Walker drove it out of play, Rashford pulled up and appeared to be holding onto his left hamstring. Rashford was flat on his back and pounding his fist on the turf. In the stands, the cameras caught England manager Gareth Southgate with a worried frown.

Rashford celebrates after completing United's thrilling comeback in the closing stages

Rashford celebrates after completing United’s thrilling comeback in the closing stages

However, Rashford appeared for the second half and it was Anthony Martial who made way for Antony. The move did not pay off immediately and City started the second half much more positively. They created the best chance of the game so far just after the break when De Bruyne and Riyad Mahrez played a lovely one-two on the right touchline and De Bruyne floated a precise pass to the back post. Bernardo Silva raced to head it but instead of going for goal himself, he tried to head it over Phil Foden’s goal and the danger was cleared.

The city was transformed. Foden was substituted for Grealish and City’s strong start to the half got even stronger. As soon as United got the ball, City won it back. They besieged United’s goal and after an hour they took the lead. Mahrez and De Bruyne combined again. Mahrez slid the ball into the Belgian’s path and he evaded the attentions of Casemiro, got to the touchline and lifted a sublime chip to the back post where Grealish rose to head it emphatically past David de Gea. Grealish had been on the pitch for 193 seconds.

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Slowly, United began to regain their balance and try to force their way back into the game. The introduction of the pace of Alejandro Garnacho helped to stretch City and cause discomfort in the defence. It stopped the flow of City’s attack as well and twelve minutes from time, and still against the run of play, United were level.

Rashford ran on to a through ball, but he realized as he closed in on it that he would be offside. As Rashford shaped to shoot and Akanji and Walker converged on him, he stepped aside and allowed Fernandes to run on to it instead. Fernandes hit it first time and his shot curled past Ederson. As he wheeled away to celebrate, he saw linesman Darren Cann flag Rashford for offside.

United protested furiously at the offside flag and referee Stuart Attwell ran away to consult with Cann. Attwell ruled that Rashford had not interfered with play and allowed the goal to stand. United celebrated wildly, and now City protested furiously. But the goal remained.

Four minutes later, United were ahead. Garnacho broke down the left and tried to cross, but the ball hit Akanji high on the chest. It returned to Garnacho, who placed Nathan Ake, turned past him on the outside and squirted another cross into the box. This time it was low, and this time City’s defenders had left Rashford all alone on the edge of the six-yard box. He stuck out his right boot and flicked the shot past Ederson. Old Trafford erupted in joy.

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