LONDON — Manchester United relinquished its two-point lead in the Premier League on Tuesday by conceding a disputed late equalizer in a 1-1 draw at lowly Birmingham.
After seeing crosstown rival Manchester City thrash struggling Aston Villa 4-0 thanks to a hat trick by Mario Balotelli, United required a victory at St. Andrews to ensure it would be clear 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 are both on 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 also complained 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 four yards.
"There was a handball, a foul on the center back — 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."
United was lackluster in the first half at St. Andrews as Birmingham suffocated the visitors with its high-tempo pressing game.
Wayne Rooney, still without a goal in open play this campaign, cut a frustrated figure stuck out on the left wing, and the only real hint of a goal came when Ryan Giggs' misdirected cross was touched on to the post by Birmingham goalkeeper Ben Foster.
The second half was a different story as United looked much more threatening. Three minutes after breaking the deadlock, the in-form Berbatov — who has a league-high 14 goals for the season — dragged a shot against the post from 20 yards.
"We worked really hard but I think we deserved to get a point at the end," said Bowyer, whose side provisionally climbed out of the bottom three.
Balotelli, who started in place of rested top scorer Carlos Tevez, converted penalties in the eighth and 55th minutes to open and round off the scoring in City's convincing victory at Eastlands.
The Italy striker's other goal came from a tap-in from close range in the 27th minute, after center back Joleon Lescott had made it 2-0 with a fine header from a corner in the 13th.
Reports in the British media suggested Tuesday that Balotelli wants to leave City after failing to settle in Manchester following his 24-million-pound ($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 Villa's welcoming defense arrived at City of Manchester Stadium.
"I think that's normal," City manager Roberto Mancini said, when asked why Balotelli was struggling to adapt. "He is 20, it's his first time away from (Italy) and he's missing his family."
Tottenham had to grind out a win with 10 men for the second time in three days after Younes Kaboul was sent off in the 65th minute for an attempted head-butt on Cheick Tiote.
Aaron Lennon had given Spurs the lead in the 57th, and Gareth Bale eased any nerves by scoring the second with a low shot in the 81st following a rapid counterattack.
Blackpool beat Sunderland 2-0 away, Blackburn won 3-1 at West Brom and Fulham defeated Stoke 2-0 away. Everton drew 1-1 at second-bottom West Ham.
Liverpool hosts Wolves in Wednesday's third match.