When Joe Hart sprang to the defence of Rio Ferdinand and blocked the path of a mindless hooligan who ran onto the Etihad pitch to try to attack the Manchester United defender it represented everything that was good and bad about the biggest derby of them all.

The morons who bring shame on the greatest football league in the world will never understand that the real heroes are the ones who are not only great players but respect and admire their rivals.

Hart is without doubt the best England goalkeeper for many years and Ferdinand has been the most skilful footballing defender of his generation. To see Hart put the shameless Manchester City yob in his place was the perfect response to bring sanity to a shocking few seconds that began with Ferdinand being hit above the eye by a coin thrown from the crowd.

This was a Manchester derby that touched the dramatic heights that has made the Premier League the most exciting and popular domestic competition in world sport – and it deserves to be remembered for the brilliant football match that it was.

The big flop was Mario Balotelli who demonstrated once again that he does not have the class or consistency to match truly great players who are both brilliant and eccentric. He is just a poor, immature shadow of a true genius like Eric Cantona.

While the embarrassing Balotelli ended up marching down the tunnel in a sulk after being hooked by the manager he let down, the stars of the show served up a feast of outstanding drama.

Wayne Rooney was at his brilliant best. City rode their luck when a linesman’s flag spared them from trailing 3-nil to stage a Carlos Tevez inspired fightback. But the player of the season so far Robin van Persie struck the 94th minute winner that crushed the defending champions 3-2 and sent Sir Alex Ferguson’s untouchables six points clear at the top. Priceless.

Ferguson v Mancini is always an absorbing side show in the derby that is once again the biggest of them all – and Sir Alex is still the master.