Scholes masterclass revives Man Utd
Paul Scholes received the dubious honour of a kiss full on the lips from Gary Neville as reward for reviving Manchester United's title campaign. The modest smile that followed suggested he regarded it as a price worth paying.
Sir Alex Ferguson, once he had stopped doing his time-honoured celebration loosely based on an impression of a pensioner dancing barefoot on hot coals, was more restrained, merely describing Scholes as "wonderful".
Ferguson's faith in the 35-year-old is so strong that he was happy to see him sign a new one-year contract on Friday - then see it repaid 24 hours later with a goal that on its own may be worth every penny of his renewed deal.
Scholes, by some distance the best player on show in a largely undistinguished derby, arrived in the penalty area with arguably only 19 seconds left of Manchester United's hopes of a fourth successive Premier League triumph. As his header hit the back of Shay Given's net, the impact was felt all the way to White Hart Lane.
Scholes receives an unexpected gift from Gary Neville after scoring - photo: AP
Suddenly the pressure on Chelsea to get a result at Tottenham turned up a vital notch. Suddenly Tottenham saw the door to fourth place thrown open by City's slip. Subsequent events emphasised the importance of that flick of the head from the man United's fans call "The Ginger Prince".
Chelsea's defeat at Spurs made it the perfect day for United and one of misery for City, who once again entered a Manchester derby fuelled by uncharacteristic optimism only for a familiar finale to consume them. Scholes' goal followed two previous injury time winners inflicted on City by United this season.
United will smell blood after emerging from their own brief slump that brought a Champions League exit sandwiched between an Old Trafford loss against Chelsea and a tame draw at Blackburn Rovers.
And to add another ironic twist in a season liberally sprinkled with unpredictability, Ferguson will be eyeing up what might be a decisive favour from his dear old pals at Liverpool when Chelsea visit Anfield on 2 May.
It was fitting that Scholes was the man who settled this game, no matter how late he left it. He gave a masterclass in his enduring midfield talents, bringing some measure of tempo and rhythm to the game with his passing, varying in range and always looking for the opening.
City may have been guilty of allowing Scholes too much time and space, but this ignores his timeless ability to make time and space. He was one of the few players who had these precious commodities at his disposal in a frenetic Eastlands atmosphere.
There was a sense this might just be a day for Scholes when he even managed to time an early tackle on Adam Johnson to perfection. Yes, he clattered the young winger but, unlike on many other occasions, he stayed on the right side of legality and it served as a statement of intent, warning a buoyant City not to get ideas above their station.
England coach Fabio Capello was in the stands to cast an eye over City's young winger. He will have better days as he was kept under wraps by Patrice Evra, but it would have been worth at least a penny for Capello's thoughts on the show put on by Scholes.
And with the dramatic late header, Scholes again showed great expertise to glance it powerfully low and tantalisingly out of Given's reach. As with the rest of his performance, it was stamped with the hallmark of real pedigree.
Scholes may not produce these displays with the regularity of old, but when he does it serves as a reminder of what he has brought to the Ferguson era at Old Trafford.
He provided rare moments of composure in a day that turned into the sort of damp disappointment City's fans, with their unique line in black humour, always fear when things are going well.
Prior to kick-off, City's fans were circling Eastlands orchestrating the sort of ticker-tape reception for their players that came to global attention at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. It was designed to pay homage to their new hero Carlos Tevez, the man they feel is a mistake they can wave under Ferguson's nose.
Man City have lost three of this season's four Manchester derbies - photo: PA
The ticker-tape reception went well but City's performance, along with that of Tevez, did not. They did not freeze in the face of the big occasion against United, but nerves borne of great expectation betrayed them.
It took a superb save from Edwin van der Sar to keep out a perfectly-placed Tevez free-kick, but the side that scored 11 goals in their last two league games against Burnley and Birmingham found United's rearguard a tougher proposition.
City manager Roberto Mancini's second-half substitutions also smacked of negativity, with the replacement of Johnson with Patrick Vieira looking like the act of someone settling for a point. And unless Nigel de Jong was injured, his replacement by Stephen Ireland with 12 minutes to go was mystifying as the Dutchman had been City's best player.
Craig Bellamy should have done better with a second-half chance and United survived a late scramble, but by this time a fit-again Wayne Rooney missed a glaring opportunity and Ryan Giggs was also wasteful.
On a mixed day for Rooney, he managed to enrage Eastlands when he crashed dramatically to the turf under challenge from Vincent Kompany. As Kompany was booked, Rooney sprang equally dramatically back to his feet and raced away.
As Ferguson was so keen to issue strictures to Bayern Munich's players for their part in Rafael's sending off in the Champions League, it is to be hoped he was equally unimpressed by Rooney's shenanigans.
Before kick-off at Eastlands, it looked like things were finally taking shape in the Premier League with Chelsea firm favourites ahead of United in the title race and City in pole ahead of Spurs for the precious Champions League spot. This season has taught us we should know better.
Expect the title race to now go to the final day. Chelsea have winnable home games against Stoke City and Wigan Athletic to come, with that booby trap of a game at Liverpool in between. Wonder how The Kop will feel about the part Liverpool could potentially play in helping United overhaul their title tally?
United face in-form Spurs and have a tough trip to Sunderland before ending with Stoke City at home. And there will be a surge of renewed confidence through their camp after this spectacular Eastlands conclusion - all sparked by the Old Trafford veteran who has seen and done it all.