Robin van Persie’s injury time free-kick sparked wild celebrations in the red half of Manchester, as United beat City 3-2 at the Etihad Stadium to extend their lead at the top of the Premiership to six points.
Pablo Zabaleta looked to have given the home side an unlikely point, with Yaya Toure and the Argentine full back cancelling out Wayne Rooney’s first-half brace, but van Persie’s late contribution to an enthralling encounter made sure all three points headed to Old Trafford.
The away side's delight was marred by ugly scenes when Rio Ferdinand was cut by a coin thrown from
the home end before a pitch invader attempted to confront the defender as the United players celebrated their late winner, but the incident should not detract from an outstanding game of football.
Roberto Mancini’s surprise and arguably misguided selection of Mario Balotelli saw the Italian preferred to Carlos Tevez in attack for City, while Sir Alex Ferguson started Rooney alongside van Persie in attack, with Antonio Valencia in the lineup despite his manager declaring he was out for a “few weeks” just two days previously.
In hindsight, it was clear that the Scotsman got his team selection right, while Mancini was left to rue his show of faith in Balotelli, who struggled to have any impact on the game, and despite City dominating the early possession and their enigmatic Italian striker blasting an early volley over the bar, it was the away team who drew first blood.
A stunning piece of counterattacking football, which started with goalkeeper David De Gea, was finished by Rooney after he and his Dutch strike partner combined to set Ashley Young free down the left flank.
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Young passed inside to Rooney, whose scuffed finish rolled perfectly past the static Joe Hart into the corner of his net to give United the lead.
City were then dealt a further blow when captain Vincent Kompany was forced off with a groin injury and replaced by Kolo Toure, but they almost struck straight back when Sergio Aguero bundled his way past four United defenders to the edge of the area before his placed shot was saved by De Gea.
In response, United took command of the game just before the half-hour mark, as Valencia and Rafael combined nicely down the right before the energetic Brazilian’s cross was duly finished by Rooney, who calmly stroked the ball past the helpless Hart.
The Red Devils continued to turn the screw, dominating possession and territory for the rest of the half, but their failure to add to their two-goal cushion would eventually come back to haunt them.
Just five minutes into the second half, Mancini reversed his tactical gamble by replacing the ineffective Balotelli with Tevez, with the unpredictable striker departing straight down the tunnel as a result.
Despite the renewed energy in City’s attack, their rivals looked to have sealed the win just before the hour, when van Persie’s brilliant curled effort struck the post, and Young converted the rebound only to be denied by the linesman’s flag.
In retrospect, although the decision was tight, it was clear the winger was onside, and City immediately capitalised on their good fortune.
Just seconds later, the home side marched down the field, and despite two outstanding saves by De Gea to deny first Tevez and then David Silva, the Argentinean was able to pick out Yaya Toure, who guided his shot into the corner of the United net.
De Gea then managed to divert a shot from Silva onto the bar, but City continued to pick up the tempo, and the catalyst for their comeback, Tevez, again had a hand in their equaliser just five minutes from time.
His corner was headed away only as far as the unmarked Zabaleta, who slammed his shot through the crowded box into the net to the delight of the home crowd, who sensed another historic win, and few would have bet against them adding a third.
However, their delirium was short-lived as Danny Welbeck, on as a substitute, dispossessed Gael Clichy on the edge of the City box, and Tevez tripped Rafael to give United one last chance with a free kick which was perfectly suited to van Persie’s favoured left foot.
The Dutchman, who Mancini attempted to sign in the summer, saw his effort flick off the shin of Samir Nasri, whose pitiful attempt at making a wall saw him move almost completely out of the path of the ball, and the shot nestled beyond the flat-footed Joe Hart to give United an unlikely victory.
There was still enough time for the game to turn sour, as emotions boiled over when Rio Ferdinand was hit above the eye with a coin while he celebrated the winning goal.
Joe Hart then restrained a young pitch invader, who was intent on confronting the bloodied Ferdinand, and Tevez, who was already booked, was very fortunate to stay on the pitch when he aimed a kick at Phil Jones.
However, little could dampen United’s spirits, as Manchester City’s two-year unbeaten home record in the League came to an abrupt end, and Sir Alex Ferguson’s men celebrated with their supporters as the City faithful began a hasty evacuation of the Etihad.
Manchester United are now six points clear of their city rival, and although there is a long way to go towards a 20th league title, they crucially play host to City in April.
The title race is far from over, and there will be plenty of twists and turns ahead, but van Persie’s 91st minute intervention may well prove to be a pivotal moment in the campaign.
Hart (5), Zabaleta (6), Kompany (6), Nastasic (6), Clichy (5), Barry (6), Y. Toure (8), Silva (7), Nasri (5), Aguero (7), Balotelli (4); Substitutes: K. Toure (6), Tevez (8), Dzeko (n/a)
De Gea (7), Rafael (8), Ferdinand (7), Evans (6), Evra (7), Carrick (7), Cleverley (7), Valencia (6), Young (7), Rooney (9), van Persie (7); Substitutes: Smalling (7), Jones (n/a), Welbeck (n/a)
Referee: Martin Atkinson (8)