MANCHESTER, England, April 7 (Reuters) - - Manchester City’s Premier League title celebrations were put on hold as rivals Manchester United produced a remarkable comeback from two goals down to win an enthralling derby clash 3-2 at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday.
A win for City would have clinched the title but instead their first home defeat in the league this season leaves Pep Guardiola’s side with a 13 point lead with six games remaining.
With United having closed the gap, City need to win two of their final games to be sure of the title. While that outcome still looks a formality, this was a bitter blow coming after Wednesday’s 3-0 loss to Liverpool in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final tie.
“In football anything can happen, it’s the first time we’ve lost two games in a row this season and now we have to recover and try again, go back to the basics and win games. We’re going to try on Tuesday and in the next games,” said Guardiola.
With an eye on Tuesday’s second leg, the Spaniard left several regular starters on the bench. They were nonetheless 2-0 up within half an hour thanks to goals from Vincent Kompany and Ilkay Guendogan and they wasted several other chances to extend their lead.
But two goals from Paul Pogba in the 53rd and 55th minutes brought United level before Chris Smalling grabbed the winner in the 69th minute.
In a dramatic game, City had a strong penalty appeal turned down and twice went close to an equaliser in the final stages. In the end, however, the planned title party at the Etihad was replaced by the sight of United players celebrating in front of their supporters.
“If they had won they are champions, for all the fans it would be like death. To lose against City and to see them celebrate, I couldn’t let that happen,” said Pogba.
Kevin De Bruyne started on the bench along with Kyle Walker, strikers Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus and French defender Aymeric Laporte.
There was no question of City taking the game lightly though as they attacked with intent and incisiveness.
When the opener came in the 25th minute, however, it was from a simple corner played in by Leroy Sane which skipper Kompany, despite having his shirt pulled by Smalling, met with a thundering header.
The second, on the half hour, came from a poor clearance from David de Gea, straight to Sane and from the ensuing break, Raheem Sterling slipped the ball inside to Guendogan who created space with a clever turn and drove into the bottom corner.
Sterling then missed two clear chances, twice blasting over when he was put clear on goal and Guendogan could have done better when, alone in the area, he headed straight at De Gea.
It wasn’t even halftime and the City fans were roaring ‘ole’ to each pass as Guardiola’s side toyed with a totally ineffective United, passing the ball around them in midfield. But if they thought the game – and the title – were in the bag, they were in for a shock.
Seven minutes after the restart, United pulled a goal back when Alexis Sanchez wriggled some room for a cross which Ander Herrera intelligently chested into the path of Pogba who slotted past Ederson to make it 2-1.
Two minutes later and United were level. Again it was Pogba, who had been poor in the first half, who did the damage, rising to meet a deep Sanchez cross and angling his header into the bottom corner.
Suddenly the air of celebration had vanished from the stadium but it was to get worse in the 69th minute, with Sanchez again the provider. The Chilean floated a free kick into the area and Smalling, inexplicably unmarked, simply side-footed past Ederson.
City felt they should have had a penalty when Aguero went down under a challenge from Ashley Young. They then went close to an equaliser when De Gea made a brilliant save to keep out a header from the Argentine striker and Sterling hit the post.
Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Christian Radnedge