Manchester United breathtakingly wrecked neighbours Manchester City’s plans to wrap up the Premier League title on derby day by producing an astonishing comeback at the Etihad Stadium.
The Reds had looked down and out after a first half when the hosts were superior and scored twice through Vincent Kompany and Ilkay Gundogan.
The Blues supporters were prematurely readying themselves for a party at United’s expense but the old never-say-die spirit was revived in a spectacular second period that saw a double from Paul Pogba and a winner from Chris Smalling ruin City’s dreams in a captivating contest.
There was a brilliantly respected minute’s applause before the game for former United midfielder Ray Wilkins, who died this week at the age of 61. But the old blood and thunder of a local dust-up followed quickly as referee Martin Atkinson blew his whistle to get the 176th derby under way.
Eric Bailly and Ander Herrera were back in Jose Mourinho’s starting XI in two changes from the previous Saturday’s 2-0 win against Swansea City at Old Trafford.
For City, Pep Guardiola made four changes from the Blues side that had been comprehensively beaten 3-0 at Anfield against Liverpool in midweek in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final.
After the early minutes when neither side could grasp control of the match, City began to take command of the derby and the Reds were unable to test Blues goalkeeper Ederson before the hosts took the lead in the 25th minute.
Antonio Valencia conceded a corner and from the resulting setpiece, Leroy Sane’s killer ball into the box was met by a powerful header from Blues captain Vincent Kompany.
City had their tails up and United were struggling to turn the tide. The Reds were penned back and five minutes after the opener, Gundogan made it 2-0.
De Gea, who has been one of the stand-out figures this season with save after brilliant save, unfortunately sent a low clearance straight to the Blues who swiftly attacked again. A clinical, swift passing move was finished off by Gundogan after he turned neatly in the box to steer home a right-footed shot. United were on the ropes.
Fortunately for the Reds, Raheem Sterling wasn’t in destructive mood when he was presented with two gilt-edged chances to rub salt in the visitors’ wounds. Twice in the space of three minutes, he was in a one-on-one situation but he scooped both his efforts over the bar to let United off the hook.
Gundogan almost grabbed his second goal when he had a free header just before half time but he could only send it into De Gea’s gloves.
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The interval whistle was a welcome reprieve for United but initially after the break, the torment continued with Gundogan hitting the woodwork.
The Reds desperately needed a road back into this derby and Paul Pogba provided it. After having his first shot saved by Ederson, he scored twice in the space of 97 seconds to turn the tide against the Blues.
The Frenchman’s blitz came in the 53rd and 55th minutes and both were crafted brilliantly with Alexis involved superbly. The first saw the Chilean pick out Herrera and when he chested the ball past Kompany, Pogba ghosted in to stroke the ball home as the rest of City’s defence looked on.
Before the Blues could steady themselves, United had brilliantly levelled the score. Alexis lofted a killer through-ball for Pogba again to drift into the six-yard area and guide his header home to make it 2-2.
It was a thrilling comeback from the Reds that hadn’t honestly looked on after the first 45 minutes. And it wasn’t even over at that point.
The unbelievable turnaround culminated with another assist from Alexis. In the 69th minute, his deep-probing free-kick picked out Smalling who’d again taken advantage of City’s defensive frailties. His right-footed volley was striker-like as he planted in United’s third goal from close range ahead of the Blues’ despairing rearguard.
Perhaps inevitably there were some flashpoints as the derby boiled over and Atkinson had to show a few yellow cards to maintain order.
As for the football, City substitute Sergio Aguero almost equalised in the 89th minute but De Gea pulled off one of his customary acrobatic flip overs to end the Blues’ hopes of a late fightback.
The match was supposed to end with City being confirmed as champions but instead it was United who took home the points and the local pride, applauded off by the ecstatic Reds supporters inside the Etihad Stadium on a remarkable evening.
'Second half had absolutely everything' Video
City: Ederson; Danilo, Kompany (c), Otamendi, Delph, B. Silva (Jesus 72), D. Silva (De Bruyne 72), Fernandinho, Gundogan (Aguero 75), Sane; Sterling.
Substitutes not used: Bravo, Walker, Laporte, Toure. Booked: Sterling, Fernandinho, Aguero, Danilo, Kompany, Jesus.
United: De Gea; Valencia (c), Bailly, Smalling, Young; Matic, Pogba, Herrera (Lindelof 90); Lingard (McTominay 84), Alexis (Rashford 82), Lukaku.
Substitutes not used: J Pereira, Rojo, Mata, Martial. Booked: Herrera, Pogba.
WHAT MOURINHO SAID
“I was really sad with their first goal because it was a corner - the third corner they have scored against us this season. At 2-0, it was important for the players to keep confident, press a little bit higher and wait for a goal. I gave them examples of teams who have produced comebacks at half-time and all credit to the boys because they kept their shape and kept believing. I think mathematically we needed six points to finish in the top four and that is the compulsory objective and to finish second is very, very important. We are doing a better season than last season.”