Manchester City dropped two precious points to one of the goals of the season from Peter Crouch, leaving United in a position to go three clear at the top of the Premier League if they beat Fulham at Old Trafford on Monday night.
Crouch scored his 12th goal of the season with a looping volley from 30 yards, and it took a strike from even further out from Yaya Touré, deflected by Ryan Shawcross, to spare the title aspirants an even more damaging result.
Stoke's lanky totem was withdrawn in the last minute to adoring cries of "Crouchy for England", which may not be such a bad call if the man who was jettisoned after 22 goals in 42 international appearances can still finish like this. He said: "I'm confident in my volleying technique, I work on it in training every day. Mind you, they don't always work out like that."
A grateful manager, Tony Pulis, confirmed that the goal was not a one-off, saying: "He does that in training. He's a gifted young man, and today I thought he was the best player on the pitch."
Of his prospects of going to Euro 2012 Crouch added: "Of course I want to go. My aim is to do well for Stoke and play my way back into the England squad."
City were so upset by the result, and the manner of it, that their manager, Roberto Mancini, refused to attend the usual post-match press conference, sending David Platt in his place. Platt indicated that the title contenders were not happy with their opponents' typically muscular approach, which left David Silva nursing a bandaged head after Dean Whitehead's forearm made painful contact with an ear.
That match was spikily competitive throughout, as Stoke's tend to be, but City's complaints had the unmistakable whiff of sour grapes. Whitehead's challenge was only marginally worse than the one on Glenn Whelan for which Gareth Barry was booked in the first half.
City were without their principal goalscorer, Sergio Agüero, who had sustained a foot injury, but opted not to start with Carlos Tevez. Instead, the line was led by Edin Dzeko, supported from behind by Mario Balotelli, both of whom had an off day when it came to finishing.
Stoke gave a rare start to Cameron Jerome, who has been bellyaching of late about his lack of opportunity. As a striker with a modest three goals to show from 15 Premier League appearances, his case was less than overwhelming, and he was withdrawn in the second half without his efforts warranting continued inclusion.
Stoke and their high-decibel following object long and loud to critical references to their team's rudimentary style, but it is hard not to compare it unfavourably with the likes of Swansea and Manchester City when the denizens of the Britannia bellow "Boring, Boring" at every attempt by the opposition to play a cohesive, passing game.
In the land of the route one giants, City stuck to their aesthetic principles and kept the ball on the deck, but to no avail, with ultra-competitive Stoke showing no sign of the fatigue Pulis says has undermined their efforts in recent weeks.
Stoke had the best chance of a combative first half after 40 minutes, when Matthew Etherington's corner from the right evaded everyone in the goalmouth, including Joe Hart, before Pablo Zabaleta cleared it off the line.
City's only noteworthy goal attempts before the interval saw Dzeko head wide close in from Gaël Clichy's cross and Balotelli shoot straight at Asmir Begovic.
While it remained goalless, there was plenty of time to consider an interesting pre-match remark from Mancini. Asked about Sir Alex Ferguson's return volley about the "desperation" of signing Paul Scholes, the City manager said: "Don't worry, I have a big helmet." The mind boggles at the not-so-artistic impressions the tabloids could make out of that.
Back at the football, Dzeko spurned another opportunity by shooting too close to Begovic. Samir Nasri demanded a much more difficult save with a low drive from distance that had the Stoke goalkeeper plunging to the base of his right-hand post.
The longer the stalemate continued, the more it became a stage for Carlos Tevez to work the magic that turned the game against Chelsea, and another turnaround was what was required after 58 minutes, when Crouch gave Stoke the lead with a goal that bordered on the wondrous. Receiving the ball in the air, 30 yards out in the inside-right channel, he controlled it deftly with his right foot before volleying it high across Hart and into the England goalkeeper's top right corner.
It was a strike of which any player in the world would have been proud, and how the Potters' punters loved it, taunting their team's critics with choruses of "We only score from our throw-ins" and "One-nil to the rugby team".
City kept passing and passing, but foundered on the twin rocks of Stoke's resolute defence and their own shoddy finishing. Tevez was clearly needed, and it was a surprise that his introduction, in place of Barry, was delayed until the 73rd minute.
An even bigger surprise was the way in which City drew level, three minutes later. Touré, who has a kick like a shire horse, let fly from 35 yards and an attempt at a headed clearance by Shawcross succeeded only in diverting the ball beyond the reach of Begovic, whose reaching right hand had the shot covered.
This time, Tevez was unable to work the oracle. Over to you, United.