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Manchester United's Robin Van Persie celebrates his goal against Manchester City during their English Premier League soccer match at The Etihad Stadium in Manchester, northern England December 9, 2012. (EDDIE KEOGH/REUTERS)
Manchester United's Robin Van Persie celebrates his goal against Manchester City during their English Premier League soccer match at The Etihad Stadium in Manchester, northern England December 9, 2012. (EDDIE KEOGH/REUTERS)

Soccer

Van Persie makes memorable derby debut with Man United Add to ...

Tom Cruise is many things to many people, but say this about the man: He has impeccable timing.

In England filming his next movie, the actor/Church of Scientology advocate was persuaded by best pal David Beckham to drop by the Etihad Stadium on Sunday for his first real taste of English soccer.

Jamie Oliver would be hard pushed to serve something this delectable.

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Of course, as is his sofa-bouncing wont, Cruise has created a problem. Short of filming every production on this side of the pond, how can he possibly go back to watching the Beckham-less Los Angeles Galaxy and Major League Soccer after savouring everything that’s good – and bad – about the English Premier League in Manchester United’s last-gasp, 3-2 win over crosstown rival and defending champion Manchester City?

On the bright side, though, even a soccer philistine such as the Top Gun star would have had no trouble recognizing the main players in this production, made even easier with Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie doing their level-best impersonations of Maverick and Goose, though neither is likely willing to accept the role of wingman.

Rooney fired the visitors into a 2-0 halftime lead, a situation from which United had never lost in 88 previous Premier League games, winning on 86 occasions. And though City showed some of the character that won the club’s first championship in 44 years last May, drawing level through Yaya Touré and Pablo Zabaleta, it was left to £24-million ($38-million) summer acquisition van Persie – a player also coveted by City – to sign off his first appearance in a Manchester derby with an injury-time curtain call.

How quickly the sheen is starting to come off Manchester City. Dumped out of European soccer last Tuesday when it failed to even qualify for the second-rate Europa League via a third-place finish in its Champions League group, a successful defence of its title is beginning to look remote, and the stockings haven’t even been hung by the chimney with care.

Now six points behind his league-leading neighbour, City manager Roberto Mancini continued to accentuate the positives, even though his club suffered its first home league loss since Dec. 20, 2010.

“I think we have a spirit to recover this six points,” he said, neatly overlooking City’s less-than-spirited play through much of the first half. “We need to win four or five in a row but we have the spirit to recover this.”

A belated Christmas present in January’s transfer window from team owner Sheikh Mansour wouldn’t hurt in the spirit stakes, with players such as Atletico Madrid striker Radamel Falcao and Inter Milan’s Wesley Sneijder atop most fans’ shopping lists.

Unfortunately, though befitting given the knockout blow inflicted by van Persie’s deflected free kick, those same fans decided to put a black eye on the sport by throwing their own money around.

In the midst of celebrating the goal, United defender Rio Ferdinand was struck on the forehead with a coin thrown from the crowd, drawing blood and requiring medical attention. With at least one fan arrested for invading the pitch, it made a mockery of a sign adorning the East Stand: “Impeccable support since 1894.”

Manchester City later apologized for the incident.

But while the sense of doom and gloom following this game may take a few days to subside, City fans might just want to remind themselves of their situation last season when the club was eight points behind United with just six games to play in the spring.

And if Cruise learned nothing else on Sunday, he should know that when it comes to City versus United, just like the best Hollywood movie scripts, there’s usually a twist in the tail.

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