By Wayne Veysey at Old Trafford
Manchester United maintained their seven-point lead at the top of the Premier League by disposing of Liverpool 2-1 at Old Trafford.
Robin van Persie’s first-time 19th minute goal helped Sir Alex Ferguson’s team take a stranglehold that they never looked like relinquishing as they cantered to a home-and-away season double over their historic rivals.
Although Daniel Sturridge pulled one back after Nemanja Vidic had inadvertently doubled United’s advantage from a free kick, the hosts were resilient enough to cope with Liverpool’s strong finish.
Sir Alex Ferguson had claimed beforehand that he no longer checks where the Merseysiders are in the table but it will give him some satisfaction that United are a mammoth 24 points ahead of Liverpool with 16 games of the season still to go.
Of more immediate significance, United moved 10 points clear of main title challengers Manchester City ahead of the champions’ encounter at Arsenal later on Sunday afternoon.
The gulf in class between United and Liverpool appeared to be mental as much as technical or physical on an afternoon which demonstrated how much Brendan Rodgers’ side need to improve to be anything other than a twice-a-season nuisance to the 19-times league winners.
Liverpool were far better in the second half but they ultimately paid the price for an abject first 45 minutes and it is a damning statistic that they have yet to beat anyone above them in the table this season.
At a freezing but vibrant Old Trafford, which numbered Jose Mourinho among the spectators, both sides had picked their strongest available sides for a match that still resonates with prestige and significance.
For United, Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, Michael Carrick, Ashley Young and the newly-crowned Premier League player of the month Van Persie all returned to the team after being rested from the side that started at West Ham last weekend. Rodgers overlooked Sturridge in favour of Stewart Downing, while Fabio Borini returned to the squad for the first time since October 7 following a foot injury.
The game began quietly as neither side could seize the initiative but the first chance of note was put away with lethal precision by Van Persie.
Following a smooth passage of build-up play from the home side, the ball was shifted out to Evra on the left, who drilled a low cross into the area that was turned into the net first time by United’s Dutch maestro for his 17th league goal of the season.
The impressive Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley came close to doubling United’s advantage in the first half as the hosts threatened every time they poured forward and it required a desperate clearance from Martin Skrtel to prevent Van Persie scoring his second with a back-heel on the cusp of half-time.
United had not been at their best and did not need to be. The half-time whistle could not come soon enough for Liverpool, with midfield trio Lucas, Steven Gerrard and Joe Allen particularly poor.
Lucas was replaced by Sturridge at half-time, which brought greater vibrancy to the visitors’ attack.
However, United extended their advantage after 54 minutes with a free kick following a poor challenge on Welbeck from Skrtel. Evra was allowed to rise unchallenged to meet Van Persie’s whipped centre at the back post and his header deflected off Vidic into the net.
David de Gea's technique when dealing with long-range shots will come under scrutiny again following Liverpool's reply three minutes later.
Gerrard did well to manoeuvre himself some space on the outside of the box and his drilled shot was heading for the corner, but the Spaniard should have done better than paw it back into the danger area, allowing Sturridge to gobble up the rebound.
Gerrard led Liverpool’s late rally, in which the lively Sturridge came close to putting away a number of half chances, but United held on to their lead to lay down another title marker.