Manchester United pulled off an incredible second-half comeback at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday evening, overturning Manchester City’s two-goal lead to emerge as 3-2 winners, putting their arch-rivals’ title celebrations on hold.
The Reds fell behind to strikes from Vincent Kompany and Ilkay Gundogan within five minutes of each other but could easily have been four or five goals down as Pep Guardiola’s men cut through their back line at will. United emerged from the break a different animal with a rejuvenated Paul Pogba netting a quickfire brace to stun the home side and level the score, before Chris Smalling made the most of some lax City defending to side foot the visitors ahead and seal a remarkable victory.
The Reds went into Saturday’s derby on the back of a comfortable 2-0 win over Swansea City a week earlier, putting in a fine attacking performance and Jose Mourinho made just two changes to that starting XI. At the back, summer signing Victor Lindelof dropped to the bench as Eric Bailly came in to partner Smalling, whilst Ander Herrera replaced Juan Mata in the middle of the park, with Pogba and Nemanja Matic completing the midfield three.
Having suffered a crushing 3-0 defeat to Liverpool in the Champions League quarter-final first leg on Wednesday, Guardiola rested a number of key men ahead of Tuesday night’s return clash but that did not stop City from dominating proceedings from the get-go.
The hosts felt they should have been awarded a penalty when Ashley Young’s slip inside the box saw the left-back block the ball with his arm, denying Raheem Sterling a tap-in but referee Martin Atkinson was unmoved, whilst Matic did well to put off Bernardo Silva from slotting the ball past David de Gea. City were not to be denied for much longer though and on 25 minutes, Kompany brushed off the attentions of Smalling to power home a header similar to the one he scored against the Reds back in April 2012.
On the half-hour mark, the hosts doubled their lead. A rare mistake by de Gea saw the Spaniard’s goal-kick fall to a blue shirt and a well-worked one-two between Sterling and Gundogan resulted in the German swivelling past Matic and guiding the ball into the bottom corner of the net, leaving the visitors with a mountain to climb. City, and Sterling in particular, will rue the missed chances that followed, as the former Liverpool winger missed two glorious opportunities to put the game to bed, blazing over the bar on both occasions.
The home side were ready to kickstart their title celebrations and few could have foreseen what was about to unfold.
Not long after the restart, Pogba had a sight of goal, though his left-footed effort fell kindly into the arms of Ederson. Moments later, City threatened to extend their lead further, only for the crossbar to deny Gundogan his second of the afternoon. Then, on 53 minutes, United had halved the deficit and kick started a remarkable comeback.
Popping up on the right wing, Alexis Sanchez wriggled away from Nicolas Otamendi and picked out Herrera, stationed just inside the City box. The Spaniard’s clever chested pass picked out Pogba’s intelligent third-man run and the Frenchman kept his cool to slot the ball past Ederson and into the net. 97 seconds later, the Frenchman repeated the trick. His marauding run into the City box was picked out by Sanchez, who cut inside on his right foot to deliver a pinpoint cross which Pogba expertly headed into the bottom corner.
The hosts were stunned into silence as their big day was on the verge of being ruined, whilst the United faithful wildly celebrated. The Reds were now bossing the game and Jesse Lingard tried his luck from outside the box but his left-footed strike whistled past the post. With 20 minutes of the game remaining, United took the lead.
Sanchez stood over a free-kick in a promising position and lofted in a delightful cross behind City’s high defensive line and Smalling – left completely unmarked – atoned for his role in the opening goal to cushion it past Ederson and turn the game completely on its head.
The hosts, with their feathers ruffled, looked to salvage something from the game and the contest turned into a niggly affair as tempers began to flare. City felt aggrieved when Young’s sliding tackle on Kevin de Bruyne did not result in a penalty, whilst Gabriel Jesus took his frustration out on Herrera, who was on the receiving end of a number of crunching challenges from the Brazilian.
With time ticking out, Guardiola’s men began piling on the pressure as United retreated and for the umpteenth time this season, it was de Gea who came to the Reds’ rescue. Leroy Sane’s cross from the left flank was met by Sergio Aguero in the six-yard box and the Argentine’s header seemed destined for the back of the net, only for de Gea to pull off yet another world-class reaction save, tipping the ball over the bar with his right hand when all hope looked lost.
From the resultant corner, Otamendi’s goal-bound strike ricocheted off Sterling’s knee and onto the post and as the ball trickled along the line, de Gea cleared behind for another corner. United’s fortunes had turned around in dramatic fashion and not even the five minutes of added time would deny the Reds a famous three points.
At the final whistle, with a remarkable comeback complete, Mourinho’s men celebrated wildly as City’s players trudged off the pitch having just missed a once in a lifetime opportunity to seal the title at home to their arch-rivals. For United, this is a derby that will live long in the memory.