Sir Alex Ferguson charged on the pitch as Gary Neville embraced match-winner Paul Scholes and fans danced on their seats. Scholes’ injury time strike won the Manchester derby in an encounter low on quality but high on drama. City may feel its time will come but for now, deep into ‘Fergie time,’ the Reds retained local honours.
The game began with Ferguson placing trust in veterans Neville and Scholes, together with Ryan Giggs. In recent fixtures the United legends’ ponderous displays have seen Ferguson’s side knocked out of Europe and all but cede the Premier League to Chelsea.
But experience told, with man-of-the-match Scholes rolling back the years. Imperious in the middle of the park, Scholes’ goal capped a team performance that places pressure on Chelsea with just three games remaining.
“Obviously we’re now hoping Tottenham win tonight,” said Ferguson, whose side was just 17 seconds away from a draw that would surely have ended the Premier League title race this afternoon.
“If they do, then the title’s back on
“Our win is a big boost to Tottenham because they can go fourth tonight, we think that’s where their incentive comes. After tonight we’ll know better.
“I think we’ve deserved to win the game. I don’t think there’s any question about that. But I couldn’t see a goal coming to be honest.
“Towards the end, City made a bit of a charge themselves. The game got a bit open. It freed us, I decided to put Scholesy up and it’s paid off.”
United began in frantic mode, eager to capitalise on Wayne Rooney’s return to the starting line-up. But withdrawn by the 75th minute, the striker’s inspirational qualities failed to mask Rooney’s obvious lack of fitness.
Before Rooney left the action, United created the first opportunities of an opening period the visitors dominated. First, Darren Fletcher struck a 20-yard shot just wide and then long-range specialist Darron Gibson missed the target with another overly ambitious attempt.
The first moment of controversy came with half an hour of the match gone. Wayne Bridge, returning to the City team after injury, handled in the area only for referee Martin Atkinson to miss an obvious spot kick. City’s vocal criticism of the official this week, who added six minutes to the Old Trafford fixture in September, having the desired effect.
But United continued to create opportunities with Antonio Valenica at the heart of the action.
The Ecuadorian created a chance for Rooney, whose drop of the shoulder bought space before he sent a left-footed drive wide of Shay Given’s goal. Valencia, giving Bridge a torrid time, then crossed for Giggs whose weak flick found only the City ‘keeper.
Not that United had the tie all its own way. City hit back with former United forward Carlos Tevez drawing a flying save from Edwin van der Sar in the visitors’ goal.
Much of United’s best work channelled through Scholes, who given time and space by City’s outnumbered midfield, dictated both tempo and direction of the Reds’ play. It took Roberto Mancini more than an hour to change City’s shape and bring the home side into the tie.
First Craig Bellamy fired wide with Emmanuel Adebayor well placed in the area and then City claimed a penalty when Gareth Barry fell under pressure. Replays showed an outrageous dive by the England midfielder that went unpunished by officialdom.
It mattered little with United pressing hard for a winner the spirited display had earned. First Giggs just failed to reach substitute Nani’s cross and then Dimitar Berbatov, on for Rooney, headed inches wide with the goal at his mercy.
Then came the stunning dénouement, with Scholes demonstrating the heading art to a tee to send United’s fans, players and management into raptures.