While the power balance in English football has moved south to London this season, the pendulum in the former northern stronghold of Manchester has swung to the red half of the city.
On a day that started with Chelsea going seven points clear of capital rival Arsenal, snatching a 1-0 win at lowly Queens Park Rangers, Manchester United all-but ended the Premier League title defense of so-called “noisy neighbor” City.
United, which last won the title in 2013, consolidated third place after coming from behind to seal a 4-2 home victory Sunday that put Louis van Gaal’s team in control of its hopes of sealing an automatic European Champions League berth with six games to play.
City fell to a sixth defeat in eight games in all competitions, dropping four points behind United — and seven ahead of sixth-placed Liverpool, which plays its game in hand at home to Newcastle on Monday.
Manager Manuel Pellegrini is likely to face further scrutiny over his future, with City now 12 points behind Chelsea and knocked out of Europe and the two domestic cup competitions.
City made the perfect start when Sergio Aguero scored in the eighth minute, but Ashley Young capitalized on some poor defending to level soon after and then his cross helped Marouane Fellaini continue his transformation from outcast to hero as he headed United into the lead just before the half-hour mark.
Juan Mata threaded through the legs of City keeper Joe Hart in the 67th minute, and then Young’s free-kick set up Chris Smalling for a header.
Aguero netted again at the end, and has now reach a century of goals for City, but it was a mere consolation as United put an emphatic halt to a run of five derby defeats.
Van Gaal praised Young, who had represented England as a winger before the Dutchman took charge after last year’s World Cup but has had to adapt to a new role as a roving wing-back.
“He was our best player. I’m very happy for him,” said the 63-year-old, who started with big-money signings Angel di Maria and Radamel Falcao on the bench. “Every player can play themselves into the team. The team is very important.”
Fellaini, seen by many as symptomatic of David Moyes’ miserable one-season reign at Old Trafford, has become a key figure as Van Gaal has juggled his many options up front.
“The fans see he is very important for the team. He scored goals. He always plays the ball to the same color — that is also very important.”
While United next travels to Chelsea on Saturday, City has the chance to bounce back at home to West Ham.
“I don’t think it was a problem of pace or the United team — it was our own mistakes on at least two goals,” Pellegrini said. “We had a lot chances at the start of the game to score another goal.
“It’s not easy to play with more pace and trust when you’re two goals down and they have more of the ball.
“We must continue working — we have six more games to try and to be as high in the table as we can.”
Chelsea is the last non-Manchester club to win the EPL, back in 2010, and moved closer to emulating that feat thanks to Cesc Fabregas’ 88th-minute winner at third-bottom QPR.
The Spain midfielder was set up by Eden Hazard and substitute Oscar after a poor kick by home keeper Rob Green — it was Chelsea’s only shot on target all match.
The visiting players were pelted with missiles after that goal — Branislas Ivanovic complained of being hit by a coin — but manager Jose Mourinho did not criticize the supporters of his team’s west London rival.
“If, at the end of the game, someone threw a pound coin, put it in your pocket. If someone threw a chocolate, eat it. It is no problem. Everybody needs a pound!” the Portuguese said.
Mourinho, who won two league titles in his first spell at Stamford Bridge, was unruffled by his team’s poor showing against a side battling to get out of the relegation zone.
“Every time I was champion I remember a couple of matches that my team won in the last minutes,” said the former Real Madrid and Inter Milan coach.
“It’s like a little light that shines for the teams that are going to be champions. We lost two points in Manchester in the last minute but we won these two points, and we won two points against Everton in the last minute.
“The team was very stable, and that stability is what allowed us to come to the last minute in a situation where a goal could win the game.”