MANCHESTER // As Carlos Tevez and Mark Hughes can testify, players come and go, but late goals remain an integral part of Manchester United's DNA. The later they occur, the more they enhance the club's reputation and demoralise the opposition. Yesterday, Manchester City entered the 96th minute at Old Trafford on the brink of the most commendable of draws. They ended it devastated and dejected. When Ryan Giggs steered the ball with perfect precision to Michael Owen, the United substitute was lingering in the inside-left channel. With one poke of his right foot, he defeated the outstanding Shay Given and City. It was Owen's first home Premier League goal for United, but it was much, much more than that.
It was a moment to justify Sir Alex Ferguson's faith in Owen. It was the end of City's 100 per cent start to the season. It was a statement of intent from United, who have been smarting at City's spending all summer. It was the cue for Ferguson to bound from his dugout towards the pitch in joyous, uncoordinated celebration. Few things delight him more than putting an upstart in his place, than reasserting United's authority and, by extension, his own.
At the risk of hyperbole, the 152nd Manchester derby may have been the best ever. City's two former United strikers played their part, Hughes configuring his side intelligently and Tevez shrugging off his knee problem to perform valiantly. Yet they cannot be mentioned without invoking Craig Bellamy, who scored a superlative brace or Given, who made a trio of stellar saves in the second half. A trio of United players belonged in the highest bracket. Wayne Rooney scored and served as their first-half inspiration. The baton passed to Giggs, who supplied a trio of assists after the interval. Darren Fletcher, meanwhile, was indefatigable, scoring a brace of headers and confirming Ferguson's long-held belief that his compatriot is a big-game player.
"He's developed into an outstanding footballer and a great boy, a wonderful professional," said Ferguson, who was happier with his charges' performance after the interval. "In the second half they were absolutely magnificent. That was the real playing power of Manchester United." Yet United had an ideal start to each half, each drawing from City a fine response. The drama began inside the second minute. Giggs took a quick throw, Patrice Evra reached the byline and pulled the ball back for Rooney. He evaded a stumbling Kolo Toure and a sliding Nigel de Jong to steer the ball in at the near post.
Initially shell-shocked, City rallied. De Jong and Gareth Barry earned them a foothold in the game, beginning to exert a level of control in the midfield. The latter also provided the first equaliser on a day when the subplot was provided by Tevez. Chugging around Old Trafford in that familiar bustling style, resoundingly booed by the United fans and serenaded by the City support, the man who was unlikely to play was not only passed fit, but passed the test of character on his return to his former club.
Relentless foraging brought its reward. Other strikers might have abandoned Joleon Lescott's over-hit pass. Tevez chased it, tackled goalkeeper Ben Foster on the edge of his penalty area and had the awareness to lay the ball back to Barry to coolly slide it past the despairing Nemanja Vidic and in. What followed, like much of the day, bordered on the remarkable. Toure robbed Rooney in the centre circle, accelerated smoothly and via, Stephen Ireland's deft flick, found Tevez. His shot defeated Foster and clipped the post.
Then, however, Giggs started to exert an influence. After half-time, he crossed from the left and Fletcher climbed above Barry to plant a downward header in the net. Yet the lead lasted barely three minutes. Tevez picked out Bellamy and the Welshman sent Ji-sung Park the wrong way before unleashing an unstoppable shot. A Welshman provided the firepower, an Irishman the inspiration at the other end. Given denied Berbatov twice and then Giggs in rapid succession. Ghosting down the left flank and causing Micah Richards untold problems, Giggs, playing his 30th derby, brought another breakthrough as United's third goal had considerable similarities with their second. He crossed a free-kick, Fletcher headed home.
Still City, and Bellamy, were not finished. Rio Ferdinand's casually chipped pass was chested down by the substitute Martin Petrov. He found Bellamy, who sped away from the half-way line and finished from an improbable angle. "Craig has scored two goals that he will never better in the rest of his career," said Hughes. Yet what followed was still more unlikely. Owen, Tevez's successor at United and Berbatov's replacement on the pitch, struck long after City thought the final whistle should have gone.
The goal had echoes of Federico Macheda's winner in similar circumstances against Aston Villa in April, Ferguson's celebration, to Hughes, was reminiscent of the United manager and Brian Kidd's against Sheffield Wednesday in 1993. And that game, won by Steve Bruce, contained the late drama required to construct a legend. email@example.com