A last gasp deflected Robin van Persie free-kick ensured Manchester United went six points clear at the top of the Premier League after a 3-2 win over rivals Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium.
Wayne Rooney gave Sir Alex Ferguson’s side a 2-0 half-time lead with their first two shots on target after some devastating counter-attacking play.
Roberto Mancini’s men looked in shock at the break but the second-half introduction of Carlos Tevez revitalised them, with goals from David Silva and Pablo Zabaleta drawing the champions level before Van Persie’s late free-kick settled it.
City came quickly out of the blocks and looked much the livelier of the two teams, with Mario Balotelli appearing to justify Mancini’s decision to start him ahead of Tevez as the Italian and Sergio Aguero combined well in attack early on.
So it was against the run of play that United took the lead through Rooney and it was cruel that it came straight from one of City’s better attacks; Balotelli just failed to release Aguero behind the opposition defence and De Gea gathered to start the move that led to the goal.
The Spaniard threw out to Ashley Young on 16 minutes for the winger to combine well with Van Persie on the right and play into the feet of Rooney on the edge of the box, the England striker’s shot was weak, but accurate, and trickled into the corner.
City’s state of mind won’t have been helped by the sight of their captain Vincent Kompany being forced to come off with an injury shortly after going behind.
Another counter-attack 15 minutes later saw Rooney double the lead, as he arrived late in the box to convert Rafael’s low cross after the Brazilian had charged down the right.
Two sucker punches had knocked the stuffing out of City and they looked lacklustre as Balotelli’s early promise turned to what appeared to be disinterest; a nonchalant flick when City were in a good attacking position was the last straw for Mancini, with the Italian walking straight down the tunnel after being replaced by Tevez.
It changed the game completely as the Argentinean’s greater work-rate and desire continually troubled Rio Ferdinand and Chris Smalling, the latter a replacement for the injured Jonny Evans just after half-time.
Tevez’s strong shot led to the home side halving the deficit with half an hour remaining, as David de Gea’s brilliant double save could not prevent the striker teeing up Yaya Toure to stroke home in the ensuing scramble for the rebound.
United were feeling aggrieved at the time as Young had been adjudged offside when turning home after Van Persie’s exquisite turn and curling shot came back off a helpless Joe Hart’s post.
It was a close call but the referee's assistant made the incorrect call as Pablo Zabaleta was playing Young onside when the shot was hit.
City kept pushing forward and they thought the game was there for the taking after Zabaleta’s equaliser with a little under five minutes to play.
Van Persie’s weak header could only help Tevez’s corner on to the edge of the United box where the right-back was waiting to thump home a low shot through a crowd and into the corner.
Tevez and Aguero both troubled the United defence as the reigning champions pushed for a winner that would take them level on points with their rivals, but summer signing Van Persie had the last laugh.
His free-kick in injury time deflected off Samir Nasri’s outstretched leg – the France international showing exactly how not to behave when in a defensive wall – and past the despairing Hart into the far corner.
Delirium for United, but there was also an unsavoury outcome in their celebrations as Ferdinand appeared to be struck by something thrown by the home crowd, causing a cut above his left eye, and some home fans ran onto the pitch – it was a disappointing end to what had been a terrific game.
Mancini will be ruing his hard luck following the loss, but his side’s vulnerability to counter-attack in the first half was really what condemned his team lose their 37-game unbeaten streak at home in the league.
Sir Alex Ferguson will have left the Etihad Stadium pleased with now being in a position he is familiar with – Manchester United taking control of the Premier League title race.