Manchester United temporarily extended its Premier League lead to 10 points after 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 it never looked like relinquishing as the club cantered to a home-and-away season double over its historic rival.
Although Daniel Sturridge pulled one back after Nemanja Vidic had inadvertently doubled United’s advantage from a free kick, the home side was 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 is 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 challenger Manchester City ahead of the the club's 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 needs to improve to be anything other than a twice-a-season nuisance to the 19-time league winner.
Liverpool was far better in the second half but ultimately paid the price for an abject first half and it is a damning statistic that the club has yet to beat anyone above it 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, Rio Ferdinand, Vidic, 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 favor 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, where he 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 home side threatened every time it 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 halftime.
United had not been at its best and did not need to be. The halftime whistle could not come soon enough for Liverpool, with midfield trio Lucas, Steven Gerrard and Joe Allen particularly poor.
Lucas was replaced by Daniel Sturridge at halftime, which brought greater vibrancy to the visitor’s attack.
However, United extended the 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 center at the back post and his header deflected off Vidic into the net.
David De Gea's technique against long-range shots will come under scrutiny again following Liverpool's reply three minutes later.
Gerrard did well to maneuver 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 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 the lead to lay down another title marker.