Despite Pep Guardiola talking up a “ridiculous” plan for his team selection going into the game, his expected wholesale changes from the cup defeat at Southampton were nothing compared to Erik ten Hag’s curveball of starting Fred to combat Kevin De Bruyne’s impact.
Bruno Fernandes lined up on the right wing as a result and drilled an effort across Ederson’s goal and wide inside the first three minutes.
United relied on direct play and counter-attacks throughout, their opponents growing into the game too gradually to get at David De Gea’s goal and sloppy on too many occasions.
Erling Haaland had just two touches of the ball inside the first 20 minutes with Phil Foden even more anonymous, the Norwegian at least having a sniff at goal with a shot well closed down by Fred and Casemiro.
United’s man-marking exercise was proving fruitful and Rashford began to get into the game, catching Ederson off his line with the goalkeeper’s rash decision to rush off his line on 34 minutes - but Manuel Akanji blocked his goalbound shot.
Rashford, chasing an eighth goal in seven games, again burst in behind to be denied by a better piece of play from Ederson before the striker pulled up and ended the half with an injury worry. Antony was introduced at the break but Anthony Martial was the player hooked after a quiet display and pre-game fitness fears.
The momentum was all City’s as United struggled to launch counter-attacsk despite the freshen up and Jack Grealish’s introduction for the underwhelming Foden proved pivotal.
Three minutes later, the excellent De Bruyne escaped down the right and cut a perfect cross in for Grealish to head home.
With Rashford seemingly not right and not many inspiring options off the bench for the hosts, the game became niggly with frustrated fouls flying in.
And yet, one of the comebacks of the season was about to unfold as Aaron Wan-Bissaka sparked an attack with Casemiro’s through ball to Rashford. Clearly offside, he held his run and Fernandes emerged to score - only for the flag to go up. Referee Stuart Attwell talked over the decision with his linesman amid furious protests and gave the goal, Rashford having technically not interfered with play.
City attempted to rally for a suckerpunch winner and yet were caught cold themselves when substitute Alejandro Garnacho was allowed time and space to cross not once but twice, the second of which Rashford coolly tapped home to take the roof off.
The final whistle signalled City not only remaining five points off Arsenal in the title race, having played a game more, but now only one point clear of a resurgent United side - on a nine-game winning streak.