Manchester: Paul Scholes’s 93rd minute winner settled an otherwise lacklustre Manchester derby at Eastlands here on Saturday as Manchester United’s 1-0 victory kept alive their dream of a fourth successive English Premier League title.
The veteran midfielder rose to meet Patrice Evra?s left-wing cross with 18 seconds remaining of the three minutes of added time and his clinical header, from 12 yards, may yet prove costly for Manchester City as they seek fourth place and a first ever taste of Champions League football.
This derby’s importance, above all others in recent Premier League history, was not lost on both teams given the clubs’ respective targets at or near the top of the table.
Perhaps that explained the slightly cautious first half, particularly from City for whom a draw would have been better than it would for their second-placed visitors.
City, consequently, seemed to spend much of the first period defending extremely deep in an effort - successful, for the most part - to stifle United.
The best chances of that opening period both fell to United and came in the final five minutes as Sir Alex Ferguson’s men finally found a way through the massed ranks of the City defence.
First, Antonio Valencia’s intelligent header into the area wrong-footed the defence and found Wayne Rooney only for the forward to place his shot past the post from 15 yards.
Then, with first half time counting down, Valencia again beat the recalled Wayne Bridge far too easily down the United right and delivered a low, driven near-post cross which Ryan Giggs poked tamely into the hands of Shay Given.
Those openings aside, first half opportunities were sparse with Edwin van der Sar required to make the only save of note when he leaped high to his right in the 12th minute to catch a direct Carlos Tevez free-kick, awarded 25 yards from goal after a foul on the Argentine striker by Darron Gibson.
As the half wore on, Rooney, who was passed fit after recovering from the effects of his ankle injury, cut an increasingly frustrated figure, frequently arguing with referee Martin Atkinson, a controversial late call-up to officiate the game because of his role in the first Manchester derby of the season in which he played additional time that allowed Michael Owen to score the winning goal in United’s 4-3 victory.
Craig Bellamy wasted a glorious chance on the counter for City, taking a Tevez pass in his stride only to hurry his shot into the side-netting.
At the other end, Giggs was similarly profligate with a wasteful first-time volley from an accurate Valencia cross when the veteran winger had time to bring to control the ball had he elected to do so.
But City manager Roberto Mancini had seen enough and sent on defensive midfielder Patrick Vieira for Adam Johnson, who had put in a disappointing performance in front of watching England manager Fabio Capello.
Finally, the contest was opening up and Evra, substitute Nani and Giggs all had half-chances for United while Gareth Barry and Nigel de Jong threatened the United goal; all in a five-minute period.
United substitute Dimitar Berbatov, on for Rooney, headed inches wide of Given’s covering dive from a Gary Neville cross nine minutes from time.
Then van der Sar mishandled a corner, sparking a furious late scramble in which Vieira and Nedum Onuoha had shots blocked.