ROBIN VAN PERSIE settled a typically passionate Manchester derby with a sensational late winner. Wayne Rooney's first-half double stunned the Etihad and left City facing a mammoth task in the second half.
But the Premier League champions were thrown a lifeline when inspirational midfielder Yaya Toure halved the lead with an hour gone.
Toure's goal set up a storming finish as the hosts did all they could to grab a share of the spoils.
And the City faithful lifted the roof on the stadium when Pablo Zabaleta drilled the ball through a crowded area and beyond David de Gea to equalise.
With a point apiece seemingly on the cards, Van Persie stepped up to curl home a free-kick and send the red half of Manchester home happy.
As the tackles flew in during the opening stages, Mario Balotelli tested De Gea with a low free-kick after Rio Ferdinand had fouled Sergio Aguero.
Balotelli tried his luck again in the 11th minute, but this time the keeper was able to watch the ball fly over after Gael Clichy’s cutback was sliced by the Italian.
United finally began to get into their stride, only to find to City’s defence in no mood to allow Joe Hart to be called into action. The home side continued to ping the ball around with confidence and Yaya Toure’s powerful runs kept Alex Ferguson’s men on the back foot.
But against the run of play, United took the lead with 16 minutes on the clock.
Van Persie combined with Ashley Young down the left and the England man raced away before rolling the ball to Rooney, who saw his shot wrong-foot Hart and dribble into the bottom corner. City were dealt a further blow after 21 minutes when skipper Vincent Kompany was forced off with an injury and replaced by Kolo Toure.
Aguero’s persistence saw him carve out a shooting opportunity just moments later but his tame finish was easily held by De Gea.
As Roberto Mancini’s men continued to look for a way back into the game, Rooney made it 2-0 a minute before the half-hour mark with a right-footed finish from Rafael’s low cross. City continued to enjoy the lion’s share of the possession but the closest they came to cutting the deficit before the break was a wayward effort from Gareth Barry.
Jonny Evans limped out of action and was replaced by Chris Smalling a few minutes after the break, while Balotelli was hooked in favour of Carlos Tevez for failing to listen to Mancini's instructions to hold the ball up.
Italy international Balotelli looked less than impressed with his manager's decision and stormed off down the tunnel immediately after being substituted. Samir Nasri was booked by Martin Atkinson in the 54th minute for having a whinge as City continued to clip the ball around without making a dent in the United rearguard.
United came within an inch of a third goal five minutes later when Van Persie curled in a fine effort with his right foot.
The Dutchman's shot came back off the post with Hart well beaten and Young's follow-up was ruled out for offside. City immediately raced down the other end and De Gea did superbly well to deny Tevez and then David Silva from pulling one back.
But the keeper could do nothing to prevent Yaya Toure from finding the net when he fired in another effort in the 60th minute.
Tevez looked lively as Mancini's troops went in search of an equaliser and the game swung from end to end. Smalling was lucky to get away with a handball as he slid in to cut out a pass and ref Atkinson had to be alert to stop the clash from bubbling over with tensions beginning to rise.
Tevez then had a sight of goal after being played in by Aguero but the striker's shot was tame after Patrice Evra hassled and harried him into rushing his effort.
At the other end, Rooney was peppered with objects thrown from the crowd as he prepared to swing in a 70th-minute corner, which was eventually headed over by Evra. City refused to abandon their passing game and Yaya Toure was desperately unlucky to be stopped in his tracks after skipping past a couple of challenges when Atkinson pulled play back to book Rooney.
Kolo Toure then crept around the back of the United defence to get on the end of a free-kick but was clearly offside as he blazed over with his left foot.
Still steaming from the earlier decision to cut short his run in full flow, Yaya Toure was next in the book for scything into Tom Cleverley. Silva wriggled his way into a shooting position 12 minutes from time but was left with his head in his hands as De Gea somehow deflected a goalbound effort onto the bar with his shoulder.
Edin Dzeko was thrown into action in place of Yaya Toure moments later as Mancini made his final roll of the dice. City ramped up the pressure once again and won a corner five minutes from time.
Tevez's delivery was not dealt with effectively and the ball was thumped home by Zabaleta to punish United for failing to clear their lines.But there was more drama to come when Van Persie's last-gasp free-kick took a deflection off Nasri and flew into the far corner of the net.
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