Sergio Aguero struck a wonderful winner last night, a goal of similar class to the one that won Manchester City the Premier League title against QPR last season.
The trophy is surely destined to return to Alex Ferguson's clutches but Roberto Mancini's side refuse to let it go lightly. They are 12 points behind but restored some pride here.
City fought hard, showing their abilities, seemingly reminding everyone that they are behind Mancini, as very vocally are the fans. James Milner scored a deflected first, Vincent Kompany conceded an own-goal but then came Aguero. United fans might not appreciate the comparison but there were echoes of George Best's angled run across Sheffield United's defence and driven finish in 1971. Aguero's finish was in real contrast to the first half.
Modest in the first half, electric after the break, the derby had started to a backdrop of defiance from the City fans, declaring they were still "champions of England". For now anyway. United had moved so far clear that a 20th title is destined for Old Trafford.
At least Mancini's players shook off the lethargy that has inhibited them at times this season. In a scoreless first half, City performed with a heightened tempo, often a crispness in passing, lacking only a finishing touch. The excellent Milner, a constant problem for Patrice Evra, led the early City charge, driving in a ball from the right that was pushed out by David de Gea.
The game stuttered from end to end for 45 minutes. The champions-elect were full of attacking personnel shaped in 4-4-2 fashion. Robin van Persie looked slightly sharper than in recent games, snaking a shot wide, and he was even more of a force after the break. Wayne Rooney was close in support, if unable early on to influence the game. Danny Welbeck, a model of sinewy industry on the right, worked hard, defensively and creatively, linking with Rafael. Over on the left, Ashley Young was running at Pablo Zabaleta.
City's formation was the familiar 4-2-3-1. Yaya Toure and Gareth Barry were holding, looking to release Samir Nasri on the left, the central David Silva or the right-sided Milner. With Mancini easing Aguero back from his hamstring problem, Carlos Tevez led the line for 70 minutes but was well-policed in the first half by the alert Phil Jones, starting at centre-half.
The game continued to hint, to tease but still fail to sate derby passions.
United did not need to win. City had to but needed more of a cutting edge and their season rests more on Sunday's FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea.
There were some good moments, such as the calm of Yaya Toure in turning away from trouble and swept the ball wide to Gael Clichy. Nasri shot wide. City's fans enjoyed it but there was no reward until Milner struck after 50 minutes.
City built and hoped. When Zabaleta dinked the ball in left-footed, Rio Ferdinand nudged Silva, whose hand touched the ball. Mike Dean, no friend to City in the first period, booked the Spaniard. Mancini shook his head and smiled in disbelief.
On it went, lacking direction until Milner's intervention. Before then, Rooney dived in on Milner and was cautioned. The England manager, Roy Hodgson, was looking on at two of his players duelling. It was hardly full-on competitive derby fare, although Ryan Giggs was niggling away. It was spiced with respect too. When Rooney and Kompany chased a ball, they both crashed into the advertising hoardings, and helped each other up.
Milner was to the fore, although his poor free-kick from the left was easily headed clear by Van Persie. United hit back, Young gliding past Zabaleta but the excellent Matija Nastasic intercepted the cross. Nastasic, one of the young players of the season, then leapt above Van Persie to head clear.
City's other centre-half, Kompany, then demonstrated the good and bad of his defending, twice sliding in to dispossess Van Persie before launching himself along the ground at Young, who had to jump to avoid a real old-school, low-level clattering.
The best chance of the half came at the end. Rooney, appearing on the right, played the ball back to Carrick, who lifted it into the box. Van Persie flicked the ball on and Rafael met it first time, shooting against the woodwork.
City ended the half slightly bemused by Dean's decision to whistle as Clichy was crossing. City remonstrated with the official as they walked off at the break.
Memories of an average first half were soon erased. Within six minutes, Giggs was guilty of a horrendous mistake, remarkably for the Premier League's most experienced player. Roughly 30 yards out, Giggs attempted a backheel which Gareth Barry seized, and played to Nasri. The French international picked out Milner, whose shot deflected in off Jones.
Within eight minutes, Ferguson's side were level. It came from a magnificent free-kick from Van Persie on the right, the ball whipped in with pace. Joe Hart was too hesitant, failing to command his box. Jones was storming in, the ball hitting his arm and diverting in off Kompany. Jones sprinted away, celebrating wildly but it was a clear own goal.
City stuck with 12 minutes remaining. Aguero had come on and looked in a mood to score. He ran past Ferdinand, accelerated past Jones and then drilled the ball high into the roof of the net. De Gea had no chance.
Much to the City fans' delight, the disappointing Rooney was withdrawn for Javier Hernandez with five minutes remaining. Van Persie swirled in a corner that Jones, under pressure from Yaya Toure, headed wide. City's defence was under increasing pressure but Milner, then Zabaleta cleared.
Tempers then boiled over. City demanded that United put the ball over with Silva sitting on the ground, nursing an injury that could leave him in doubt for Wembley. United were under no obligation to stop the game. Barry and Aguero were furious, arguing with Ferdinand as a brief melee broke out.
(© Daily Telegraph, London)