Lethal Van Persie in class of his own
TARGET-MAN, talisman, Robin van Persie is looking every elegant inch the man for all reasons in the title race.
The Dutch master scored his 17th Premier League goal of the season, and created the second for Nemanja Vidic, filling with belief those Manchester United fans waving their 'Van The Man' scarves that the No 20 will reflect their title total come May.
Champions Manchester City must surely feel that the seven-point gap would not exist if they had managed to land Van Persie last summer. He remains the difference.
His work in the first 55 minutes here was vitally important as Liverpool then rallied thrillingly.
Sturridge gave Liverpool a forward focus, an able accomplice for Suarez. Liverpool ended the day vanquished but their supporters left a crowing Old Trafford with hope in their hearts, with further evidence that Brendan Rodgers is guiding them in the right direction.
They still need the exciting Raheem Sterling to continue developing, improving his concentration levels. They still need strengthening.
If victory over the old foe felt particularly sweet, United will have enjoyed other elements.
There was a resilience to the way they resisted Liverpool's energetic attempt to prise a point. There were further signs of the promise of Cleverley, who looks to be forming a well-balanced, legs-and-brains midfield axis with Carrick.
There were substitute appearances by Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, reflecting United's depth of options.
Ferguson was effusive in his praise of Welbeck afterwards, understandably so. United's manager had surprisingly broken the Van Persie- Javier Hernandez axis, giving Welbeck a chance that the boyhood United fan took exuberantly.
His pace and industry were a constant problem for Liverpool. The final touch needs enhancing but the raw materials are there in abundance.
On a day heaving with positives, Ferguson was also treated to forceful displays by his full-backs, Patrice Evra and Rafael. With Jonny Evans ruled out with a hamstring problem, Vidic brought authority to a back-line that has been too porous this season.
Initially one-sided, this contest between ancient adversaries eventually proved absorbing fare for the 75,501 audience, including some special guests in Jose Mourinho, scouting United before Real Madrid's Champions League encounter, and members of the Hillsborough families, who had been invited by Bobby Charlton.
United were in control in the first half, Carrick sweeping passes around, Shinji Kagawa darting here and there, Cleverley driving on and Welbeck and Van Persie taking up intelligent positions.
By contrast, Liverpool were poor, lacking ambition. Gerrard was too deep, Allen too timid, Suarez too isolated.
United began building, Van Persie tweaking his sights, bringing Pepe Reina's goal into range.
There was an expectancy around Old Trafford that Van Persie would soon score. He looks an even more accomplished attacker this season. He looks stronger physically, his body capable of withstanding the buffeting of defenders.
His anticipation was as sharp as ever after 20 minutes. The build-up itself was a joy to behold, showing United at their quick-moving, quick-thinking best.
The ball flowed from Kagawa and Welbeck to Cleverley and then to Evra down the left. The Frenchman's cross was low and hard but opportunity really knocked because of Van Persie's movement. He stepped back to deceive Daniel Agger, who should have been tighter, should have been more alert.
It was a masterclass in creating space. Van Persie then took a stride quickly towards the incoming ball, transferring it instantly left-footed from 10 yards past Reina. Van Persie stretched out his arms to envelop Evra and Cleverley in a celebratory embrace.
United were rampant. Van Persie shot over. Welbeck eluded Skrtel but Agger intervened. Skrtel cleared Van Persie's back-heel off the line. Cleverley volleyed over.
Outclassed, Liverpool briefly became fractious. Allen went in late on Carrick. Lucas caught Ashley Young, who did not reappear for the second half and left the ground on crutches. Antonio Valencia replaced Young but it was a Liverpool change that really influenced matters.
Rodgers twisted at the break, sending on Sturridge for Lucas. Sensing Liverpool's growing threat, United went through the gears after 53 minutes, Welbeck running through and being brought down by Skrtel outside the box. Agger indicated he was covering and Howard Webb contented himself with a caution for Skrtel. United still made Liverpool pay. When Van Persie lifted the ball to the far-post, Evra lost Sterling, stole in ahead of Glen Johnson and made contact with a header, the ball skimming in off Vidic.
Linesman Darren Cann failed to spot that Vidic was fractionally offside. Most in the ground assumed that Evra had scored as he was leading the celebrations.
Liverpool looked aggrieved and pulled one back within four minutes. Carrick and Cleverley were hounded by Gerrard with Sterling seizing on the loose ball and ushering his captain forward.
Two touches from Gerrard's right boot nudged the ball into a good shooting position and his third sent a low shot goalwards. David de Gea saved but he pushed the ball into traffic, towards the onrushing Sturridge, rather than wide of goal, and Liverpool's new recruit calmly swept it home.
Liverpool were invigorated and Sturridge and Fabio Borini both had chances to grab an equaliser. (© Daily Telegraph, London)