It has been a while since Old Trafford reverberated like this at the final whistle and it has been a while since Manchester United have had a player to pin their hopes on like Bruno Fernandes.
Maybe Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s hyperbole about the Portuguese international being a mix of Paul Scholes and Juan Sebastian Veron is not so over-the-top after all because it is hard to recall someone having had such a mood-changing impact as Fernandes at such a big club.
Undoubtedly that is also an indication of how far United have fallen but the wonderful piece of invention that Fernandes came up with in the first-half to create United’s opening goal for Anthony Martial will go immediately into the show-reel of highlights of Manchester derbies. Of all-time.
It also gave United the lifeline to hang onto as they surrendered up to 75 per cent possession against Manchester City and defended heroically before scoring an equally opportunistic second goal through substitute Scott McTominay in injury-time. Aaron Wan-Bissaka, in particular, was outstanding as Solskjaer gained a third win – and a Premier League double – over Pep Guardiola this season.
It gives United hope of continuing the pursuit of Chelsea and finishing in the top four while a 10th game without defeat in all competitions and eight clean sheets points to a team, finally, heading in the right direction.
For City defeat means that Liverpool take another significant step towards their first title in 30 years. In fact Guardiola’s first loss at this stadium means that if City fail to take at least four points at home to Arsenal on Wednesday and Burnley on Saturday then Liverpool can clinch the title away to Everton next Monday. If City lose those two games – unlikely as that is – then Liverpool will be champions without having kicked a ball again.
Fernandes departed to a standing ovation and resounding chants of “Bruno, Bruno”. In the absence of Paul Pogba the midfielder has proved to be what Solskjaer has called a “box-opener” and, maybe, he has also shown that it may not be so bad for United should the French World Cup winner move on this summer.
United feel like a team, well, more united than for some time and the players understandably milked the gleeful reaction of their supporters before they disappeared down the tunnel in the driving rain.
It feels, finally, like they are galvanised. It feels a long time since the dispiriting defeat at home to Burnley in December. “The desire, attitude, commitment, connection between fans and players pleased me most,” Solskjaer said and he was right.
Whether Solskjaer is the man to try and bring them back to the top probably remains to be seen and he will have to develop more positive tactics than this.
Good signings help and while the debate as to whether United messed up in not signing Fernandes last summer cannot be dismissed there is no doubting the difference the 25-year-old makes now. He wants the ball. He demands the ball. And he produces in possession. “He is humble enough, he works hard and he has the X-factor,” Solskjaer said.
It is two goals and three assists since Fernandes’ league debut on February 1 and that is more than any other Premier League player during that time while the quick piece of skill to release Martial may have been his best contribution so far. It was a real “box-opener” moment.
City were angry at conceding a free-kick, arguing Ilkay Gundogan had not fouled Fernandes, and maybe that distracted them as Sergio Aguero failed to react when the midfielder chipped the ball to meet Martial’s run with the forward striking a volley that squirmed under Ederson and over the goal-line.
It was a mistake by the goalkeeper who went on to have a poor game – and almost allowed a back-pass into his own net – as did Nicolas Otamendi who was fortunate not to concede a penalty as he caught Fred with, instead, the United midfielder cautioned.
Undoubtedly City missed Kevin De Bruyne who was out with a shoulder injury but they coped without him last season. They could not do so on this occasion as they hogged the ball but did not hurt United whose five-man defence had spent the warm-up being drilled by coach Kieran McKenna.
United’s approach is limited; is counter-attacking and they need to evolve if they are going to challenge City and Liverpool but Fernandes and co are making a difference while on this form, when he looks fired up, Martial is vital especially in the absence of Marcus Rashford.
Finally City raised the tempo – with Aguero substituted and the knee he hurt in the Carabao Cup Final bandaged – and it felt like a long time for United to try and hold out as David De Gea tipped over a powerful shot from Phil Foden and, surely, Raheem Sterling should have scored when he met a low Riyad Mahrez cross with only the goalkeeper to beat. The ball skimmed off his boot.
The pressure grew but so did United’s defensive resolution as City became increasingly desperate. That showed as Ederson over-hit a pass to substitute Benjamin Mendy with the ball running to McTominay who struck a first-time shot from 40 yards that flew into the unguarded net. The stadium erupted with Solskjaer asked if he had heard such a noise at Old Trafford, even in his playing days. “We were probably more used to it back then,” he said. He will hope those times are gradually returning.