Manchester United maintained their seven point lead at the Premier League’s summit, following a hard fought win over rivals Liverpool at Old Trafford, courtesy of goals from Robin van Persie, and Nemanja Vidic, either side of half time.
United ran out deserved winners in the end, but were forced to hold off a spirited fightback from the visitors, who could have snatched an equaliser late on, after Daniel Sturridge pulled a goal back on his league debut.
However, the decisive interventions came from Van Persie, and Patrice Evra, who both played important roles in both goals, with Evra supplying the cross for the Dutchman’s strike, before Van Persie’s free-kick was headed at goal by the French full-back, via a deflection off the head of Vidic.
The usual raucous atmosphere accompanied both teams to the pitch, for a game which plays host a considerable amount of bad blood, even before last season’s events.
However, the media storm which, last season, focussed on Luis Suarez’s ban for racially abusing Evra, this year concentrated on comparing the goalscoring exploits of Suarez and Van Persie, as the men battle for supremacy as the league’s top scorer.
On Sunday, Van Persie put to rest any debate that suggested Suarez was ready to usurp him as English football’s most feared striker, as he stamped his influence on the game early, while Suarez struggled to find any sort of foothold in the game for the full 90 minutes.
The hosts started brightest, dominating possession with Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley looking comfortable against the midfield trio of Steven Gerrard, Lucas Leiva, and Joe Allen, while Liverpool’s attacking threat was non-existent, with Raheem Sterling and Stewart Downing struggling to have
any sort of impact on the game to support the isolated Sterling.
United’s attacking menace was much greater, with Van Persie linking up play with the midfield, while the energetic Danny Welbeck caused problems all game, and did all but score.
Just under twenty minutes were on the clock when United had their first meaningful opportunity, and it was taken with the usual clinical aplomb by Van Persie.
Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck linked up nicely on the edge on the area, before the midfielder found Evra on the left, and the fullback’s low cross was guided expertly past Pepe Reina by the summer signing from Arsenal.
United then wasted a flurry of chances to extend their lead before half-time, with Danny Welbeck firing wide, before Daniel Agger made a last-ditch challenge to deny him, after the inept Allen gifted him possession with a sloppy pass back.
The league leaders came close again when a poor headed clearance from Allen fell to Tom Cleverley, whose volley displayed perfect technique, but drifted inches wide of Reina’s post, and Liverpool escaped again at the end of the half, when both Van Persie and Shinji Kagawa couldn’t turn home a dangerous cross from Rafael.
Kagawa’s challenge left Reina needing medical attention, although the Japanese midfielder looked to have been pushed into the goalkeeper by the visitors’ own full back, Andre Wisdom, but with Reina stricken in the area, and Liverpool playing on, United felt aggrieved by Howard Webb’s decision to let
the game continue only until they regained possession.
The interval brought a welcome respite for Brendan Rodgers’ men, who looked out of sorts for the first 45 minutes, but the manager responded by bringing on Sturridge to replace Lucas, in an attempt to add some attacking impetus to his side’s game.
Sir Alex Ferguson replaced Ashley Young, who received a knock, with Antonio Valencia on the wing, but the changes did little to change the course of the game, with United extending their lead ten minutes after the
Reina and the Liverpool defence looked hopelessly disorganised as Van Persie swung in a free-kick, and an unmarked Patrice Evra ghosted in at the back post to head, what he thought was his fourth goal of the season, past Reina.
As Evra celebrated a goal which he may well have considered the sweetest of his career, video replays showed the ball deflected off the head of Vidic past the keeper, and United’s Serbian captain was awarded the goal, making him the team’s 18th different goalscorer of the campaign.
A late knee injury forced Vidic off late in the game, and Ferguson will hope that it is a minor issue, but there is concern at Old Trafford, considering the same knee recently kept him out of action for the best part of a year.
At that point, it looked as though the home side would go on to punish Liverpool, but just three minutes later, the Merseysiders found a way back into the game.
Cleverley’s loose pass outside his own area allowed Gerrard to steal the ball, and while the previously untroubled David de Gea was able to push his shot away, Sturridge reacted before the flat-footed Rafael to tap home the rebound.
The goal rejuvenated Liverpool, but it still took a diving save from Reina to prevent Kagawa extending the Red Devils’ lead.
Welbeck continued to work hard, but failed to display a clinical edge in front of goal, and Liverpool slowly grew in confidence.
With Fabio Borini replacing Sterling, Liverpool finally had three recognised strikers on the pitch for the first time in a long while, but their battle proved to be all in vain, as Sturridge, who continued to be a handful, He fired into the side-netting when he perhaps should have crossed, before shooting over from 10 yards, when a loose ball fell to him after Suarez fought for possession in the penalty area.
The Uruguayan, predictably booed throughout by the home fans, had one final chance to steal a point for the visitors, but his header looped into the arms of De Gea, and United held on to, briefly, extend their lead at the top to ten points.
Manchester City’s win at Arsenal meant their rivals’ lead at the top of the table reverted to seven points at the close of play, but the Red Devils will be happy to hold onto a hard fought win, despite dominating the match for long periods.
They will be disappointed to have not killed off the game earlier, but it was most important to secure the three points that maintained their lead at the league’s summit.
Liverpool were much improved when Sturridge made his entrance, but, despite their manager’s belief they are closing the gap between themselves and the top teams, United’s overall dominance, particularly in the first half, suggests the gap remains considerable.
With Sir Alex Ferguson’s men doing the double over their rivals from Anfield, they can now focus on reclaiming the Premiership title from their city rivals; yesterday’s win was a considerable boost in their attempts to achieve this.
Manchester United: De Gea (7), Rafael (7), Evra (9), Ferdinand (8), Vidic (8), Carrick (8), Young (5), Cleverley (7), Kagawa (6), Welbeck (8), Van Persie (8); Substitutes: Valencia (6), Jones (6), Smalling (6).
Liverpool: Reina(7), Johnson (6), Wisdom (6), Skrtel (7), Agger (7), Gerrard (6), Downing (5),
Lucas (5), Allen (4), Sterling (5), Suarez (5); Substitutes: Sturridge (8), Borini (6), Henderson (6).
Referee: Howard Webb (6)