LONDON – Manchester United relinquished its two-point lead in the English Premier League on Tuesday by allowing a disputed late equalizer in a 1-1 draw at Birmingham.
After crosstown rival Manchester City handled struggling Aston Villa 4-0 on a hat trick by Mario Balotelli, United needed a victory at St. Andrews to ensure it would stay at the top going into 2011.
Top scorer Dimitar Berbatov's 58th-minute strike broke the deadlock, but Lee Bowyer grabbed a dramatic leveler with a minute left in normal time, bundling home from close range after Birmingham substitute Nikola Zigic appeared to handle a deep cross into the box.
The two Manchester clubs both have 38 points, although United has two games in hand. Arsenal, which visits Wigan on Wednesday, is third, three points behind having played the same number of games as United.
Tottenham beat Newcastle 2-0 to go provisionally fourth ahead of Chelsea, which hosts Bolton on Wednesday.
As well as the handball appeal against Zigic, United may also note that the Serbia striker fouled Rio Ferdinand as he went up to challenge for Roger Johnson's ball into the box. Bowyer could also have been marginally offside, too, before sliding home his finish from 4 yards.
"There was a handball, a foul on the center half — if the referee can't see it, what chance have we got?" Ferguson said.
"I think it's terribly harsh ... we didn't deserve that."
A Villa defense containing two Americans — goalkeeper Brad Friedel and right back Eric Lichaj — was unable to cope with City, and Balotelli in particular, at Eastlands.
The Italy striker opened the scoring in the eighth minute, sending his penalty into the bottom-right corner.
Joleon Lescott doubled the lead by glancing in Adam Johnson's corner, before Balotelli applied a finish from 3 yards after Friedel had parried out a shot by Spain winger David Silva.
Balotelli's third also came from the penalty spot, after Johnson was fouled, to leave City well in title contention and Villa two points above the relegation zone.
Reports in some of the British media suggested Tuesday that Balotelli wants to leave City after failing to settle in Manchester following his $37 million offseason move from European and Italian champion Inter Milan.
The 20-year-old striker has been in and out of City's starting lineup and had only scored twice in the league — both coming at West Bromwich Albion in November — before the Villa game.
"It could be that he is homesick," said Mancini, when asked to explain why Balotelli has so far failed to adapt to the English game.
"I don't think it is a long-term problem. He is 20. It is the first time he has left his family. It is normal for him to miss them."
Balotelli said he is "very happy" at City and expects the team to have a say in the title race for the first time in a generation.
"We can win this championship," he said. "In the new year we can be better."
Tottenham had to grind out a win with 10 men after French defender Younes Kaboul was sent off in the 65th minute for an attempted head-butt on Cheick Tiote.
England winger Aaron Lennon had given the Spurs the lead in the 57th minute and Gareth Bale eased any nerves by scoring the second in the 81st following a rapid counterattack.
Blackpool ended Sunderland's undefeated home record in the league by winning 2-0 thanks to two goals by D.J. Campbell, Blackburn beat West Brom 3-1, U.S. midfielder Clint Dempsey helped Fulham beat Stoke 2-0 away and Everton drew 1-1 at West Ham.
Liverpool hosts the Wolves in Wednesday's third match.