It always promised to be the most dramatic of derbies. And so it proved, just not in the way envisaged when Manchester City were 2-0 up after 35 minutes and Manchester United were fortunate not to be four adrift.
It then promised ignominy for Jose Mourinho and ecstasy for Pep Guardiola. It instead delivered an uncharacteristic win for the Portuguese and a rare setback for the Spaniard.
The bare facts from an extraordinary game are that City, who were 45 minutes away from securing the Premier League title, have lost back-to-back games for the first time this season. United conjured a comeback to spare themselves the sight of their neighbours being crowned champions. They conjured a comeback that was all the more remarkable because they had been outclassed.
It was a fightback more redolent of the watching Alex Ferguson than Mourinho. It was memorable and, for United, magnificent. City had reeled off 14 straight home league wins. They had not dropped points at the Etihad Stadium since August.
Enter Paul Pogba, the sort of supersized character who makes this rivalry so compelling. Wanted by City in 2015, signed by United in 2016 and, according to Guardiola on Friday, offered to the league leaders by his agent in January, the £89 million (Dh460.5m) man belatedly illustrated his value.
Pogba offered a reminder that, erratic and frustrating as he can be, his talent equips him to influence any game. It proved, too, that City can concede goals in quick succession, as Liverpool have also shown.
For 45 minutes, there was no evidence Guardiola needs the Frenchman in his midfield. United were sufficiently outclassed that they had a solitary touch of the ball in the City box before half-time. Pogba then had two of considerable significance in a catalytic contribution.
Both involved Alexis Sanchez. A player City definitely did consider signing in the winter window delivered two crosses. Ander Herrera met the first with lovely chest pass for the on-running Pogba to apply the finish. Then Sanchez’s chip forward was met by Pogba, who had ambled into space, with a downward header. Two minutes, two touches, two goals.
Remarkably, Sanchez set up a third. His free kick was met by the unmarked Chris Smalling. He was a symbolic figure, culpable for City’s opener, clinching United’s victory. He lost Vincent Kompany from a corner, just he did when the City captain scored a crucial goal in 2012, as the Belgian again as he headed in a David Silva set-piece.
It feels strange that a small City side have scored three goals from set-pieces against United this season. Their fourth strike of the two meetings was altogether more typical in its execution, Ilkay Gundogan performing a deft turn after exchanging slick, quick passes with Raheem Sterling after David de Gea coughed up possession with a poor clearance that Leroy Sane met.
They ought to have been four up, Sterling twice ballooning a shot over the bar after City, and David Silva in particular, sliced through their defence with perceptive passes. It hinted at how dangerous Sterling was as a false nine yet that profligacy came at a cost: United were nowhere near as shambolic after the restart. Mourinho’s half-time intervention made a difference.
Guardiola had made four changes, sparing players with Tuesday’s Uefa Champions League rematch against Liverpool in mind. He ended up sending for the rested Kevin de Bruyne and Gabriel Jesus. City responded.
Ashley Young was fortunate not to concede a penalty for a rash challenge on substitute Sergio Aguero. The Argentine was then denied his 200th City goal by a brilliant De Gea save while Sterling hit the post. United nonetheless held on for a remarkable win.