penalty by referee Martin Atkinson after being caught by Kolo Toure inside the box. The Frenchman showed his nous in a defensive role to help eradicate the danger provided by pal Tevez as the match swung from end to end but continued to get forward and misjudged a Rooney corner from a promising position.
With 12 minutes left, United advanced with menace again but Cleverley's cross was misjudged by van Persie, who could only head wastefully wide. City responded in kind as Silva showed great skill inside the box to allow himself plenty of space to fire goalwards but the ball cannoned off De Gea's shoulder and against the woodwork.
It was a let-off for the visitors and, after Tevez blazed over from another move instigated down City's right, Mancini threw on Edin Dzeko at the expense of goalscorer Yaya Toure. Sir Alex had to replace Valencia with Phil Jones and seemingly set the stall out for the closing stages but Zabaleta came up trumps with four minutes left.
A corner came out via van Persie to the full-back on the edge of the box and, totally unmarked, he drilled a right-foot drive into the net through Jones' legs and into the net for the equaliser. De Gea had to be alert to save from Silva after Evra's misjudgement inside the box and then keep out a Tevez attempt as City searched in vain for a winner. Instead, van Persie came up trumps and showed why he is one of the best players in the division. A free-kick by the Dutchman deflected off Nasri and past Hart's despairing dive to spark chaotic scenes behind the goal with Ferdinand bloodied during an incident that is bound to spark plenty of response in the media.
That does not matter in terms of the overall picture as United did what they do best - win in the most dramatic of circumstances and stretch that advantage at the summit to six points. This performance alone illustrates how determined United are to wrest the title back across Manchester come May.