Manchester City demonstrated their title credentials in emphatic fashion on Sunday with a sensational 6-1 victory over neighbours Manchester United at Old Trafford.
Mario Balotelli was United's chief tormenter as his goals established a 2-0- lead that set the tone of the afternoon. United can point to Johnny Evans' 46th minute red card as mitigating circumstances but Manchester City already held a 1-0 lead by then. Although the hosts pulled a goal back to limit the damage at 3-1 after an impeccable finish from Darren Fletcher, that was like a red-rag to City.
They hit three more past a threadbare United backline in a chaotic final five minutes as the substitute Edin Dzeko struck twice either side of a David Silva goal to deliver a thunderous wake-up call to the rest of the Premier League. City are title pretenders no more, they are playing with the swagger of champions.
Given the brittle state of his defence this season, it was no surprise to see Rio Ferdinand return to the United back-line but Sir Alex Ferguson opted for continuity in retaining Johnny Evans over the fit-again Nemanja Vidic, after the latter was sent-off in mid-week and the former impressed in last weekend's draw at Anfield.
Ferguson, never one to shirk the emphasis he places on youth, retained Danny Welbeck in place of Javier Hernandez as Wayne Rooney's strike-partner de jour.
City manager Roberto Mancini restored Mario Balotelli to the starting XI barely 36 hours after the Italian set fire to his own house with an over-zealous firework display. Hollywood's finest would struggle to concoct a more fanciful narrative for the young striker's career to date.
Mancini's bold line-up emphasised City's position as favourites going into this pivotal derby clash. Unbeaten in the Premier League after eight matches, Mancini's side were two points clear of their city rivals before Sunday's game, now they are five and only a fool would deny they are now title contenders.
But despite City's wealth of attacking options both sides were erratic going forward in the early stages and David De Gea's first contribution was to pluck the ball out of his own net.
Silva threaded the ball through to James Milner and the midfielder's low cross to the edge of the area from the left was neatly side-footed to the left of the United goalkeeper. The Italian's impudence was summed up when he revealed a t-shirt with the message 'Why Always Me?', the subsequent yellow card only added to the myth the young forward appears so eager to cultivate.
The game hinged on two crucial instances at the start of the second half. First, the home side were reduced to ten men when Evans hauled Balotelli down with the City forward through on goal. The dismissal spurred United into their most attacking phase of the game but Ashley Young and Wayne Rooney failed to beat Hart and soon after United were dead and buried.
A smooth attacking move saw a neat Silva turn release Milner inside the penalty area on the right and Balotelli was on hand to convert the low cross into the net. United had no response to City's slick movement and, with Silva dictating play through the middle, it was only a matter of time before the visitors extended their lead.
Milner released Richards on the right and Sergio Aguero was on hand to knock home the cutback for a 3-0 lead. Fletcher gave the home support cause for optimism with a brilliant goal in the 81st minute but City had plenty in reserve to give the scoreline a touch of class.