MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – Manchester United , despite three defeats in its first 12 Premier League games this season, looks certain to enter 2013 firmly favored to regain the title so dramatically grabbed by the ''noisy neighbors'' of Manchester City in the spring.
It's a birthday present Sir Alex Ferguson craves as he prepares to turn 71 on New Year's Eve. The longer his United can withstand the challenge of neighbors who are not so much noisy - Ferguson was having fun at City's expense when he said that - as very rich indeed, the happier he will be.
Ferguson knows that, even in the era of Financial Fair Play in European soccer, United's vast revenue cannot protect it from the financial muscle of the Abu Dhabi royal family, whose attitude to investment somewhat contrasts with that of the Glazers who own United. So the veteran Scot has to make sure that his team is smarter than City's.
And that's how it was Sunday, when United took control of the Etihad derby with rather too much speed and simplicity for the comfort of City and its support, not to mention coach Roberto Mancini. The loss will increase the speculation surrounding the Italian's job and perhaps increase the calls for Josep Guardiola, the former Barcelona mastermind currently enjoying an extended vacation in New York, to take charge.
Although City responded to a pair of goals from Wayne Rooney with one from Yaya Toure and a late equalizer from Pablo Zabaleta, an even later winner from Ferguson's summer capture Robin van Persie settled the outcome, leaving Mancini's champions six points behind leaders United with nearly half the season gone.
The goal was a self-administered slap in the face to the extent that Samir Nasri should not have waved a lazy foot at van Persie's free-kick, taking it out of the reach of City goalkeeper Joe Hart, but even without the last of the five goals it would have been advantage United in this local confrontation.
Ferguson has been around so long - he recently celebrated 26 years in charge of United - that we sometimes take for granted his ability to find the right tactics for a big game. He did it at Chelsea six weeks ago, only for United to have its triumph somewhat overshadowed by post-game allegations the host club inaccurately made against referee Mark Clattenburg. And at City he did it again.
There were two main differences between the sides in the first minutes of play as Rooney took to point United at the three points. One was mental sharpness and the other was the width of Ferguson's team. The players had an acute appreciation of what they were supposed to do, which was to absorb the expected early pressure - and City did not let them down - then hit hard down the flanks.
Width has always been fundamental to Ferguson's philosophy about the game. At Aberdeen, where he made a reputation solid enough to travel beyond Scotland's borders, one of his key signings was winger Peter Weir, as a balancing force to Gordon Strachan. At United there have been Andriy Kanchelskis, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo - and now there are Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young.
Against the relatively narrow City, whose creative players have no great love of the touchline, it was Young who made the first goal, combining nicely with van Persie on the left and feeding Rooney, whose touch was better than Sergio Aguero's had been in a similar position seconds earlier - it had been as quick a break as that - and whose shot trickled through the legs of two defenders, leaving Joe Hart flat-footed as, without a hint of apology, it entered the net.
Then City encountered some genuinely hard luck. Vincent Kompany, an inspiring captain, suffered a groin injury and had to be replaced by Kolo Toure, who was among the group of defenders who all but ignored Rooney and he strode on to a low cross from Rafael - the defender had overlapped Valencia - and shot low to Hart's right.
The contest would have been all over but for an offside flag that debatably denied Young after van Persie had clipped a beauty against a post. But the linesman had his view and a minute later City had reduced the deficit through Yaya Toure, who pounced after David de Gea had made a brilliant parry from David Silva.
So there was a long half-hour for United to survive. If survive was the word, given that Ferguson's approach had been to attack as a form of defense. But his men were indeed driven back by the sheer determination of the home side, who got a temporary reward when Zabaleta shot through a forest of legs assembled to contest the consequences of a corner kick.
United, too, had lost a central defender when Jonny Evans strained a leg and Chris Smalling took over alongside Rio Ferdinand - himself later the victim of a coin hurled from the crowd in an incident that cast a cloud over the rich entertainment. But this game was all about the winners' willingness to attack at a stadium where City had not fallen in the League since Everton prevailed nearly two years ago.
City, indeed, had not lost a league game anywhere since going to Arsenal in April. After the Champions League knockout turned into eviction from even the Europa League , there was speculation that a clearing of the decks might assist in the retention of the domestic title. It seems otherwise. So expect more discussion of Mancini's future. And expect it to focus on Guardiola.