Manchester City in driving seat

The moment ... Kompany rises above Smalling to head the matchwinner in for Manchester City (Getty)

Roberto Mancini and Sir Alex Ferguson went face-to-face as their teams went toe-to-toe, and it was Manchester City which prevailed on a night of tension and drama at the Etihad Stadium.

Vincent Kompany grabbed the only goal as City, three weeks after apparently crashing out of the English Premier League title race, turned the tables on Manchester United to seize the initiative at the top.

The game may not have been the end-to-end thriller the build-up had suggested and an estimated TV audience of 400million had craved.

Yet with so much on the line, that was probably always too much to hope for.

What unfolded was still a compelling encounter with two great rivals slugging it out in the face of immense pressure.

That was never more in evidence than on the touchline as managers Mancini and Ferguson needed to be parted in the second half as tensions boiled over.

It took a little while to build to that crescendo, though, as this most hyped of encounters came to life only slowly.

The mood around the stadium was relaxed just an hour before kick-off and it was only with minutes to go that all the seats were taken up.

Yet with a football icon such as Diego Maradona in the crowd, and several TV news crews outside, there was no mistaking the size of the occasion.

It was perhaps that that inhibited City early on.

When it hit its sticky spell in March it was said the pressures of having led the table for so long had got to the team.

Yet after its damaging loss to Arsenal earlier this month, when it was left trailing United by eight points, it returned to some of its free-flowing early-season best.

It appeared City was playing with nothing to lose as West Brom, Norwich and Wolves were swept aside, with the rejuvenated and restored Carlos Tevez providing the spark.

But playing for such high stakes, the tension was obvious in the early stages.

City started slowly and were edgy, while United made the running in the opening stages.

The visiting side frustrated City with the likes of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, winners of 12 and 10 Premier League titles respectively, using all their experience to control the pace.

United, a Champions League finalist in three of the past four years, appeared in the European mode, happy to soak up the pressure and hit back on the break.

Yet City knew it had to attack, and when it did finally gain a foothold in midfield, the team in blue began to carve out a few chances.

Yaya Toure was shadowed well by Ji-sung Park early on but did break free occasionally to give United some worries.

Its goal just before half-time came after a sustained spell of pressure and exposed Chris Smalling, who was making his first start since January.

The goal briefly transformed the atmosphere as City fans celebrated jubilantly into half-time, but the nerves were evident again in the second period.

Toure grew in influence and City dictated play while United, with Wayne Rooney a frustrated and isolated figure, was disjointed.

But with the second goal not coming, there was apprehension and Mancini went defensive, sending on Nigel de Jong and Micah Richards for Carlos Tevez and David Silva.

It was a move that could have backfired. Inviting United to attack can be a recipe for disaster and there were plenty of flutters as the fourth official indicated there would be five minutes of injury time.

Yet City did enough and held on to claim a most famous victory that puts a first title in 44 years within its grasp.