Puncheon: Saints on the march
Robin van Persie's deflected injury-time free-kick gave Manchester United an incredibly dramatic 3-2 derby win over Manchester City and struck a major marker in the Premier League title race.
Wayne Rooney's two first-half goals had looked set to give United a comfortable victory before City hit back through Yaya Toure and Pablo Zabaleta in an engrossing encounter at the Etihad Stadium.
But, in stoppage time, the late free-kick from Van Persie, who had been wanted by City before he joined United in the summer, flicked off Samir Nasri in the wall and condemned the defending champions to their first home defeat in the top flight in two years.
The thrilling goal, for which Nasri's defending was poor, was marred by unpleasant scenes as celebrating United centre-back Rio Ferdinand was struck by an object seemingly thrown from City fans.
Greater Manchester Police also confirmed a man was arrested inside the stadium on Sunday on suspicion of committing a racially aggravated public order offence after officers heard racist chanting.
On the field, a United win in part avenged their double derby losses last season and Holland international Van Persie's late strike also moved Sir Alex Ferguson's team six points clear at the top of the table.
It had been a typically adrenalin-fuelled opening five minutes, with neither set of players pulling out of tackles amid a fierce and fiery atmosphere but City began to dominate possession in the early stages.
However, against the run of play, Sir Alex Ferguson's United took the lead in the 16th minute as Rooney's tame finish from just inside the penalty area left Joe Hart wrong-footed and concluded a slick counter-attack.
Roberto Mancini's team were stunned, lost their momentum and suffered a further setback in the 21st minute when a groin injury meant captain Vincent Kompany had to be substituted and replaced by Kolo Toure.
City became ragged and were duly punished in the 29th minute when Rooney doubled United's advantage from Rafael da Silva's low, right-side cross to net his 150th Premier League goal.
Shortly after half-time, United were themselves forced into a defensive change when centre-back Jonny Evans, who had sustained an injury before the interval, had to be replaced by Chris Smalling.
Mancini's patience with the ineffective Mario Balotelli, surprisingly selected in the first XI, ran out soon after and the reported AC Milan transfer target stormed down the tunnel having been swapped for former United striker Carlos Tevez.
In contrast to last season's encounter, when United and Ferguson were strongly criticised for their negative tactics, the game continued in a far from cagey style and Ashley Young saw an effort disallowed for a controversial offside decision after Van Persie had hit a post.
To underline United's frustration at the ruling, City moved straight up the other end of the pitch to pull a 60th-minute goal back as Yaya Toure kept his composure after goalkeeper David de Gea had produced an excellent double save from David Silva.
The goal set up a frenzied final half-an-hour of end-to-end football and City got the equaliser their second-half performance deserved when United's deficiencies at set-pieces were again exposed as Zabaleta's 86th-minute half-volley at a corner flew into the back of the net.
There was, however, to be another twist as Van Persie struck deep into stoppage time with a curling free-kick which clipped Nasri's bizarrely dangling leg to give Hart no chance.
|Manchester City||Team Statistics||Manchester United|
|0||1st Half Goals||2|
|9||Shots on Target||3|
|6||Shots off Target||5|
|59.8||1st Half Poss.||40.2|
|52.2||2nd Half Poss.||47.8|
Saints' return to the top flight after a seven-year absence was hardly ideal, with just one win in 11 matches leaving them 19th.
Nigel Adkins' side shipped a league-high 29 goals in the process, but a new-found defensive resolve has resulted in a dramatic change in fortunes and they are now up to 15th in the table.
Southampton have only conceded four goals in their past six matches and collected their second clean sheet in Saturday's 1-0 win against fellow strugglers Reading.
Asked what has changed at the club, winger Puncheon said: "I think it was nerves.
"I'll be honest, as a team coming into the Premier League, I think we were a bit nervous, a bit shaky.
"We didn't find our feet or our rhythm and now we have found that and that is showing as a team.
"We haven't got a bad defence. A few of the boys playing in that back four played in the team last season and how many clean sheets were there last season? Now we are gelling and that is showing.
"It is definitely onwards and upwards now. We look forward to the Sunderland game. It is a home game so we need three points again."
Puncheon has flourished for Saints this season and scored the decisive strike on Saturday in a match in which he also saw a first-half header harshly chalked off.
"It was a deserved win," he said. "We could have won by more but we got the three points and that was the main things for us.
"I wasn't too sure at the time why my first-half goal was disallowed. The ref said there was a push but it wasn't me.
"At the end of the game everybody said it was a clear-cut goal and it should have counted.
"It was good to score, though. Me and Clyney (Nathaniel Clyne) are working up a good relationship. We're gelling, getting better and better as the games go on.
"He has picked me out really well and I have slotted it across the goalkeeper."
Puncheon's form has led to some observers touting him as a potential option for Roy Hodgson's England side.
His former boss at Barnet, Paul Fairclough, has backed him for a call-up and Saturday's performance will not have harmed his chances given England Under-21 boss Stuart Pearce was in the crowd.
"I don't worry about those sort of things. That's out of my hands," Puncheon said.
"The only thing I worry about is putting on the Southampton shirt and performing week in, week out.
"It is always nice to get mentioned but you don't let those things get in your head."