The 170th edition of the fixture was expected to be one for the Old Trafford crowd to savour – United having the opportunity to leapfrog their neighbours in the standings, while City had scored 11 goals in their previous two league wins.
But such thrills were in meagre supply throughout 90 minutes contested by two of the most expensively assembled starting XIs in Premier League history, with United failing to register a single shot in the first half for the first time in over a decade.
The absence of David Silva and Sergio Aguero through injury badly impacted upon City’s creativity, while an off-colour Wayne Rooney was unable to effectively supplement Anthony Martial’s ingenuity in the United attack.
Substitute Jesse Lingard was almost an unlikely derby hero for United, prodding a volley against the crossbar from Martial’s wonderful lofted ball five minutes from time and City goalkeeper Joe Hart saved brilliantly from Chris Smalling as the clock ticked down.
City edge on to 22 points, ahead of Arsenal at the summit on goal difference, while United are fourth and level on 20 with third-place West Ham.
After speculation over his involvement dominated the pre-match build-up, City captain Vincent Kompany returned at centre-back to partner Nicolas Otamendi for the first time, while Manuel Pellegrini replaced Jesus Navas with Fernando to bolster his central midfield.
Louis van Gaal made a solitary change to the United side that drew 1-1 against CSKA Moscow in midweek, with Juan Mata replacing Lingard, and his settled line-up made the more assured start.
City’s first sight of goal came in the 12th minute, Raheem Sterling’s shot deflected wide after a one-two with Fernandinho – the Brazil midfielder who earned a fifth booking of the season and a suspension for bringing down Martial a few moments later.
Soon after, a clash of heads between Kompany and Rooney left his United counterpart bloodied and off the field for repairs.
Yaya Toure enjoyed the best opening of a forgettable opening 45 minutes as half-time approached – heading Kevin De Bruyne’s right-wing corner narrowly wide before lofting a searching pass from the same player off target.
Martial’s lightning-quick footwork offered United’s greatest source of encouragement before the break, Kompany booked for a rash foul on the France international, but Ander Herrera was the man to unnerve City after the restart.
Having seen a shot deflected wide, the midfielder collected a short corner and went down under a challenge from Sterling, who went unpunished but made way for Navas in the 53rd minute.
United almost found success with a more direct set-piece approach, Morgan Schneiderlin agonisingly close to a decisive touch as Smalling’s header skidded past Hart’s near post.
Otamendi made a vital clearance as Rooney lurked on the end of a low Bastian Schweinsteiger cross and Hart burst from his goal to deny Mata as the pressure on City grew.
Pellegrini’s decision to replace Toure with veteran defender Martin Demichelis showed his willingness to accept a point from a wholly disjointed performance and Lingard and Smalling were denied by the woodwork and Hart respectively as the cross-Manchester tussle ended all-square for the first time in 13 meetings in all competitions.