United needed their “noisy neighbours” to lose or draw so that the Red Devils can determine their own finishing position in the Barclays Premier League with two games to go.
And that is exactly what Louis van Gaal’s team were handed at the Etihad Stadium as third-placed Arsenal fought back from 1-0 and then 2-1 down to grab a vital point that also ensures that they keep their noses ahead of City.
Alexis Sanchez’s outstanding finish after superb interplay with Olivier Giroud in the 68th minute gave Arsene Wenger’s outfit a share of the spoils and moved them up to 68 points on the standings, still two behind Tottenham, but more crucially still three ahead of City, who are on 65.
But United – on 63 points – have a game in hand on both City and Arsenal, and will next face seventh-placed West Ham at Upton Park on Tuesday. If United beat West Ham and then Bournemouth on the final day of the season at Old Trafford next Sunday, they will qualify for the Champions League ahead of City.
Manuel Pellegrini’s team have just one fixture left, a tough encounter against an in-form Swansea City away next Sunday.
In Pellegrini’s last home game in charge at the Etihad – before he makes way for Pep Guardiola – City had the best possible start after the impressive Sergio Aguero was set up by Fernandinho’s accurate knock-down header inside the box.
The Argentine striker lashed the ball home with his left foot to beat a despairing dive from Petr Cech to give City a 1-0 lead in the eighth minute.
But just two minutes later, Arsenal hit back when Egyptian Mohamed Elneny delivered a perfect corner into the 18-yard area, and Frenchman Giroud lost his marker Eliaquim Mangala and beat Joe Hart with a powerful header for the equaliser.
German playmaker Mesut Ozil was ruled out with a hip injury before the game already, but the Gunners suffered another blow when striker Danny Welbeck went off after the opening quarter with a knee problem.
It meant that Arsenal lacked some pace and physical presence upfront, as a midfielder in Jack Wilshere – who made his comeback after eight months out with a shin injury – replaced Welbeck.
City dominated the rest of the first half, with Aguero in particular in inspirational form as he troubled the Arsenal defence throughout with his speed and tenacity.
With Belgian star Kevin de Bruyne pulling the strings in midfield, Aguero had a number of further chances on goal, but was unable to finish.
Soon after halftime, De Bruyne took matters into his own hands as he retained possession on the right side of the box and threaded the ball through the defence to beat Cech on the inside post, which put City 2-1 ahead after 51 minutes.
That appeared to flick a switch in the Arsenal ranks once more as Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott combined to get into the box, but Nicolas Otamendi cleared the danger with a desperate sliding effort.
But Arsenal left the best for last with a typically slick piece of play in the 68th minute when Alexis Sanchez found Giroud just outside the box, and the French striker flicked it back into Sanchez’s path, with the Chilean hammering the ball past Hart.
City had three more excellent chances to grab victory, with first De Bruyne’s well-struck free kick being tipped over the top by Cech. Just two minutes later, an audacious chip over the top of the Arsenal defence set up Aguero inside the box, but he shot wide of goal with his left foot.
It looked like Arsenal had done enough to earn a point, but then City substitute Wilfried Bony found space in the penalty area for a sweet volley, only to hit the crossbar with Cech well beaten.
Wenger was left frustrated afterwards by a lacklustre performance from the Gunners. “It’s quite funny because when it was 1-1, we didn’t look like we could score. As soon as the score was 2-1, we started again to have that desire and we looked dangerous straight away,” the Frenchman told Sky Sports in the post-match TV interview.
“So, it looked like today, just subconsciously, like we just didn’t want to lose the game.”
But the draw was enough to raise United’s hopes of fourth spot, and now it’s all up to Van Gaal’s men at the Boleyn Ground in London on Tuesday night against West Ham.
Juan Mata scored the winner in a 1-0 triumph over Norwich at Carrow Road on Saturday, but the Red Devils will have to perform much better if they hope to beat West Ham.
The Hammers, though, will be low on morale after a 4-1 thrashing in London at the hands of Swansea City on Saturday.
In the other Premier League fixtures on Sunday, Liverpool beat Watford 2-0 through goals from Joe Allen and Roberto Firmino, while a Steven Davis brace saw Southampton pull off an 2-1 upset over Tottenham at the Stadium of Light, with Son Heung-Min’s early opener not enough for Spurs.
Premier League Top Five
1 Leicester (champions) – Played: 37, Points: 80
2 Tottenham Hotspur – Played: 37, Points: 70
3 Arsenal – Played: 37, Points: 68
4 Manchester City – Played 37, Points: 65
5 Manchester United – Played 36, Points: 63
Original source: Arsenal hand United a lifeline