by Andi Thomas & Alex Netherton

Say what you want about Roberto Mancini. He’s a grotesque idiot, he has a ridiculous fringe, he doesn’t know what he wants out of a team and he wears a scarf. Say what you want, and say all of that, and then remember his good points: he wins leagues when the other teams have points handicaps, are recovering from points handicaps, or when he has a billion pounds of investment—spent over a few years—behind him. Alex Ferguson might deserve a good old sacking for his failures over the Glazers in the last couple of years, but Roberto Mancini deserves relentless mocking. And not just for the fringe. And scarf. OK, mainly for the fringe.

Definitely the fringe.

The world and his depressed, disinterested wife sat down with a few alcohol dents garnered from a zesty Saturday and topped them up over Sunday afternoon. The world and his wife sat down with a few alcohol dents and anticipated United getting humped. The world and his wife sat down and expected Alex Ferguson’s nonsense about how a victory for United would be his best win ever would be punished for its cowardice. Everybody felt, or should have felt, a clammy hand of disgust resting on everything that was about to happen.

Shockingly, it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable games of the season.

This was a match for the strikers. Strikers who have so much riding on their relationships not just with their current clubs, but the clubs they also flirted with. Van Persie, Rooney and Tevez have spent their last few years variously linked with both clubs.

Rooney, a husk of sweaty musk, scored twice. There’s been a lot said about Wanye Rooney’s uncertain future at Manchester United. He’s played better than he did last season, largely, but he might yet be usurped by Shinji Kagawa. On Sunday he actually seemed to need to win, not necessarily for Manchester United and the fans he so gravely disappointed when he made eyes at City. No, against Manchester City he had to win to convince himself he didn’t make the wrong decision in choosing to stay at a team that is experiencing the longest death rattle since the fourth season of The OC. This was the competent, effective and committed Wayne Rooney that is seen only when he can be bothered. He’s a great player with tremendous intelligence and, at times, technique. There is every chance that despite the two goals on Sunday, and the thirty goals in a season from 2009/10, that nobody will ever understand how to get the best of the greatest natural talent in English football since Paul Gascoigne.

The same goes for Mario Balotelli. An exquisite finisher, he is paired with the dullest manager of the English game, Roberto Mancini. Racially-abused in his homeland and exorcised by Jose Mourinho, he finds himself adored as a buffoon but underdeveloped as a football player. Roberto Mancini is not the man to take him forward—publicly huffing and puffing over a young man’s immaturity isn’t exactly a masterstroke. Yesterday, he pulled him off in a fit of rage after he tried a back-heel that didn’t come off, proving himself to be the more petulant half of the relationship. Alex Ferguson made the most of the sublime-but-frustrating talent of Cristiano Ronaldo, but even he might have lost his patience with Balotelli.

The second goal of the game was the funniest of all. While Rooney was celebrating with salt-and-pepper fox Robin Van Persie, David Platt looked like he’d just been affected by an unexpected bowel movement. Roberto Mancini had the blank-faced expression of a clone who hadn’t yet been exposed to external stimuli. Which, if you have a look at the effect he has on his team, is probably a reasonable comparison. He dropped Tevez, his best player, and then presumably wondered why his introduction changed the game for Manchester City. Obviously, Carlos Tevez loathes Alex Ferguson and is desperate to do anything to make life worse for him, but was only given forty or so minutes to inflict revenge. The hate was there to be harnessed for the whole game, the man behind the knitwear simply left it to simmer for too long, much in the same way he probably overcooks his [stereotypical Italian foodstuff].

The game was won by Samir Nasri Robin Van Persie, with a last minute free kick clipping off the Frenchman born without a spine. This goal was a symbolic triumph. This was the player that had been convinced to choose United over City in the summer, the player that would have likely been the best player even at Manchester City, despite the presence of Yaya Toure. It was a symbol of the possibility that Van Persie, yet again scoring a vital winner for Manchester United, might actually understand what it means to play for them, in a way so many others (hello, Ashley Young) clearly fail to. Of course, United lack quality where City don’t, but last year it was City who had the greatest advantage—they acted like champions. There are few players who can be a talisman for two different clubs, but Robin Van Persie is making a play for being a hero not just at Arsenal, but at United too. Just imagine the mess Mancini would have made of him.

Today is Andi Thomas’ birthday, please wish him well in the comments.