Manchester City may be powerless to prevent the title returning to Manchester United but a stunning strike from Sergio Aguero ensured they were at least able to enjoy a 2-1 victory at Old Trafford.
The win cuts United's lead to 12 points at the top of the table but with seven games remaining the gap is surely insurmountable, even despite Aguero's brilliant intervention in the Manchester derby.
James Milner put Roberto Mancini's side in front after 51 minutes as City exploited a lapse from Ryan Giggs, but United responded when Phil Jones headed against the unfortunate Vincent Kompany and in from a wicked Robin Van Persie free-kick.
Aguero, though, stole the show with a brilliant solo effort after 78 minutes, darting away from three markers before rifling an unstoppable shot past David De Gea and into the roof of the net.
It was perhaps a hollow victory in terms of the title race, but it restores some pride after a difficult season for City and deals a substantial blow to United's hopes of beating Chelsea's record points tally of 95 from 2004-05.
Wayne Rooney returned to the United side after recovering from a groin injury while Van Persie was also restored to the starting XI in one of five changes following last week's FA Cup quarter-final defeat to Chelsea. City, meanwhile, left both Edin Dzeko and Aguero on the bench as former red Carlos Tevez spearheaded a rather defensive-looking side.
Still, it was an absorbing start to the match with both teams looking full of intent as the fight for bragging rights began in earnest: Danny Welbeck tested Joe Hart with a header inside two minutes while David Silva saw an extravagant near-post flick from a Milner cross deflected behind for a corner.
Van Persie, seeking to end a run of nine games without a goal to his name, carved out the first clear chance of the match when he allowed a pass from Rooney to run across his body and stroked the ball back across goal, only to see it roll wide of the far post.
City's most sprightly individual was Silva, the Spain playmaker getting away from Rio Ferdinand at the back post to nearly tee up Tevez from close range before then seeing a deflected cross drop to the feet of Samir Nasri, who delayed and then shot well wide. Given the vast disparity between the performance of the two sides this season, it represented a positive display for the visitors.
But while a muscular contest witnessed bookings for lusty challenges from Rooney and Kompany, genuine openings were increasingly rare. And while Rafael struck the post in the final seconds of the first half following a neat header from Van Persie, the right-back was merely trying to manoeuvre the ball away from his marker, rather than aiming to beat Hart.
The derby sprung to life after 51 minutes though when City took the lead. Ryan Giggs ceded possession with a poor attempt at a backheel by the touchline and after City worked the ball to Nasri, he laid it off to Milner 20 yards from goal. The midfielder struck a firm effort that took a touch off Jones before nestling in the back of the net.
However, United levelled just eight minutes later. Yaya Toure brought down Rafael with a rather clumsy challenge and Van Persie's delivery from wide was sublime as his free-kick swerved viciously at goal after curling out of the reach of Hart. Jones actually contrived to head the goal-bound ball away from goal but was lucky to see it deflect off Kompany and back over the line.
City then introduced Aguero - the man who took the title away from United in the last few seconds of last season - as the Argentine striker replaced Nasri just seconds after the midfielder had sent a volley over the bar on the spin when connecting with a gorgeous lofted pass from Silva.
On 78 minutes, the striker made his mark on the contest with a goal of the highest quality. Aguero showed commendable strength and balance as he took the ball on a diagonal run to the near post, wriggled past three man and slammed the ball into the roof of the net from 10 yards out.
In the manner in which Aguero delayed the initial shot in search of a more favourable angle it recalled his seminal goal against QPR in May. Similar rewards will elude City this season though, an ultimately futile win at Old Trafford only giving a flavour of what might have been.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Sergio Aguero (Manchester City): He was only on the pitch for 19 minutes but the striker provided the moment of the match with a sensational goal to give City the derby spoils.
MAN UTD: De Gea 6, Rafael 6, Ferdinand 6, Jones 7, Evra 6, Carrick 6, Giggs 5, Welbeck 6, Rooney 5, Young 6, Van Persie 6. Subs: Valencia 6, Hernandez N/A, Kagawa N/A.
MAN CITY: Hart 6, Zabaleta 7, Kompany 6, Nastasic 7, Clichy 6, Y Toure 5, Barry 6, Milner 7, Nasri 6, Silva 7, Tevez 7. Subs: Aguero 8, Garcia N/A, Lescott N/A.
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- Sergio Aguero
- Manchester City