A 4-2 derby victory helped Manchester United surge clear of neighbours Manchester City in third position and keep their bid for a Uefa Champions League return in safe hands.
United could not have asked for a better time to play the Premier League champions, who have struggled so far in 2015 with just five league wins, and with the rivalry between both Manchester teams always serving as an undertone to their match-up; it was not going to be a walk in the park for either sides.
Manager Louis van Gaal brought in Chris Smalling for Marcos Rojo, while Pablo Zabaleta and James Milner replaced Bacary Sagna and Edin Dzeko in City’s lineup.
United pulled back from a Sergio Aguero opener to lead 2-1 at half time as Ashley Young canceled out the Argentine opener with his first derby goal and then turned provider for Marouane Fellaini.
Juan Mata added United’s third after the break; Chris Smallings was then played onside by Eliaquim Mangala to thump home from Young’s free-kick before Aguero took his tally to 100 in all competition, since joining City from Atletico Madrid in 2011.
Aguero has now scored six goals in his last four top-flight matches against United and is level on 19 goals with Chelsea’s Diego Costa and Spurs’ Harry Kane in the goal-scorers’ chart. The 26-year-old Buenos Aires native needed just 8 minutes to equal United legend Eric Cantona on 70 Premier League goals on Sunday.
A lethargic defending by the home team allowed Milner to connect David Silva on the left flank, and with Michael Carrick and Antonio Valencia caught out of position; the latter squared the ball for Aguero to tap into an empty net- his first league goal since 21 February.
The lead lasted for just six minutes as Ander Herrera gathered a David de Gea clearance to find Young in the middle of the box. The English winger squeezed the ball in on his second asking having first been thwarted by Gael Clichy.
Both rivals continued to drag the ball from coast to coast, as proceedings unraveled from a cagey affair into a must-win pace. City’s 4-5-1 formation allowed Aguero more sight at De Gea’s goal, but could not keep his effort on target after being picked out by Clichy in the middle of the vital area.
It was however Young who found Fellaini with an excellent cross at the other end, allowing the Belgian to rise above Clichy to head past Joe Hart on 27 minutes.
City’s push for and equaliser lacked substance as Milner could only try a speculative shot at goal and with Vincent Kompany escaping a straight red for a reckless lunge at Daley Blind, the obvious signs of nerves began creeping in for the visitors while initiative befriended the Red Devils.
United got off to straight assault in the second half, forcing Hart to a wonderful double save, first getting a hand to Wayne Rooney’s free-kick, before then denying Michael Carrick’s close-range effort- though Man City managed to clear for safety after a bit of pin ball in the box.
The England first-choice could not fend off Mata’s trouble in the 67th minute after Rooney slipped in the Spaniard, apparently in an offside position. The former Chelsea midfielder kept his cool to slot the ball through Hart for United’s third.
Smallings, who was sent off in the 1-0 defeat at the Etihad in November, consolidated for the pains of yesteryears with United’s fourth, before Aguero converted Pablo Zabaleta’s cross for his second of the day.
The defeat means City have now lost four consecutive away matches and are four points adrift of their rivals and just five points ahead of fifth-placed Southampton.
QPR 0-1 Chelsea
Earlier on Sunday, Champions elect Chelsea left it late to see off struggling Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road, with Cesc Fabregas grabbing the match-winning goal in the 88th minute.
Chelsea are seven points clear at the top of the standings ahead of second-placed Arsenal with a game in hand, while QPR remain rooted to the bottom of the table.