Manchester United 1 Manchester City 1

Barton tempers United's ambition
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The Independent Football

That leaves them just one short of their all-time mark in the top division, set in the 1976-77 campaign when they were runners-up and it would be difficult to make a case suggesting they did not deserve it. Sir Alex Ferguson tried, of course, but it was City who came closest to getting a winner, Edwin van der Sar making a flying save from Andy Cole in stoppage time.

"They scored with their first shot at goal," the Sir Curmudgeon of Old Trafford said of Joey Barton's equaliser. "It was a bit like last season. They parked themselves on the edge of box and looked for scraps. They scored with only 14 minutes to go and it gave them something to hang on to."

Even Wayne Rooney, free to roam and therefore the biggest influence on the game (is the penny dropping, Sven?), could not relax the visitors' grip. Ferguson's mood was soured not only by the surrendering of points to the old enemy but because the result means his team are now five points behind Chelsea even though he has stressed the need to match the champions step for step over the first weeks of the season. Yet, inspirational flashes from Rooney apart, and Ruud van Nistelrooy's finish, it was a match of fleeting superiority for United.

And Ferguson was wrong in at least one point: it is not like last season because City are now under the leadership of Stuart Pearce and they have developed an obduracy that was an elusive quality under Kevin Keegan. They came back from a goal down to beat Portsmouth two weeks ago and they almost did the same yesterday. "I certainly don't think we deserved to lose," Pearce said. "There's a great confidence in the dressing-room at the moment and a growing will not to get beaten."

The opening exchanges were notable for speed rather than skill but it was City who began the better. United had barely strayed from their half in the first 10 minutes but a clever pass from Rooney that allowed Park Ji-Sung to shoot across the goal marked a tilting of the scales and the remainder of the first half went to the red corner in terms of chances if not possession.

Gabriel Heinze crossed from the left after 20 minutes, the ball was headed back by John O'Shea at the far post and Paul Scholes, United's captain for the day, turned but his low shot went by the post. That was a half chance, the full variety arrived nine minutes later when Park flicked on a header and, as City's back four appealed for offside, Van Nistelrooy sneaked beyond them and would have been disappointed that his stretch and volley looped high over the bar.

That was wasteful and a frantic half appeared likely to be summed up by Rooney beating three players, tripping up and then falling flat on his face, when Van Nistelrooy struck in stoppage time. Rooney touched a free-kick to Scholes, whose 35-yard strike was sailing wide until the Dutchman reacted splendidly to volley goalwards. That first attempt was halted by a brilliant save by David James but the ball rebounded to Van Nistelrooy and he shot past the prone goalkeeper.

United almost got another after 63 minutes when Rooney tantalised City with a run and flick that put Park clear. The South Korean has missed a few opportunities since he arrived at Old Trafford, however, and his shot across goal was so limp it nearly became a pass for Scholes.

City were struggling to find any fluency, but just when it appeared they were going to have a frustrating afternoon, they equalised after 76 minutes. Trevor Sinclair crossed from the right, Cole shot and was thwarted by Van der Sar. Darius Vassell was first to the rebound, had a second attempt on goal and Barton got a touch to put the ball in the net.

United's response was to bring on the old guard, Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs, and the latter almost restored United's lead in the 89th minute when he stooped to head Rooney's cross just past the post.

But on a day when Manchester was painted blue, it was appropriate City should have the last word and they almost got a winner in stoppage time. Sinclair skipped down the right, pulled the ball back for Cole and his shot was heading for the top corner until Van der Sar leapt to claw the ball away.

"We came with a plan and we felt we got it right," Pearce said. "United probably won't get as few chances all season as they got from us."