Man Utd 4-0 Liverpool
Manchester United reclaimed the Premiership high ground, if only for a few hours, with a vital victory over fierce rivals Liverpool.
The prolific Ruud van Nistelrooy fired the hosts into an early lead from the penalty spot after the striker had been brought down in the area by Liverpool captain Sami Hyypia.
Hyypia was sent off for the offence and Liverpool were forced to labour through the rest of the encounter with only 10 men.
The performance was by no means vintage United and they had some generous refereeing by Mike Riley to thank for their second goal after the break.
Riley harshly penalised Hyypia's replacement Igor Biscan for a foul on Paul Scholes and gave United another spot-kick, which Van Nistelrooy again converted.
Ryan Giggs weighed in with his first home Premiership goal for two years and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer completed the rout which sees United leap one point ahead of Arsenal, who play Aston Villa later on Saturday afternoon.
Whatever the outcome of that game, Sir Alex Ferguson will surely be thinking one down, three to go as United enter the most testing phase of their season.
4 mins: Van Nistelrooy converts spot-kick
64 mins: Van Nistelrooy scores a second from the spot
78 mins: Giggs makes it three
90 mins: Solskjaer scores late on
The Champions League quarter-final against Real Madrid on Tuesday is followed by crucial games against closest challengers Arsenal and Newcastle in the league.
United, with captain Roy Keane restored to the starting line-up, signalled their intent from the kick-off in front of a vociferous Old Trafford crowd.
The irrepresible Scholes lofted an accurate pass over the Liverpool defence and Van Nistelrooy, storming into the area, shaped to shot but was unable to get any decent contact on the ball.
United surged forward again and Scholes was once more the provider, threading the deftest of through balls for Van Nistelrooy to run on to.
The Dutchman was held back by Hyypia, Liverpool's last line of defence, and was duly awarded a penalty.
Van Nistelrooy, who in recent games has shown an undesirable propensity to fall far too easily under pressure, picked himself up and struck home the resulting spot-kick with unerring accuracy.
With Liverpool, already shorn of Michael Owen's predatory instincts, down to 10 men, Gerard Houllier instigated an immediate reshuffle, bringing on Biscan for Milan Baros.
The switch only exacerbated the unfamiliarity within Liverpool's defensive ranks.
Keane marshalled the midfield
Yet there was nothing strange about United's attacking forays. Scholes was at the heart of their most fluid moves, showing vision and touch in equal measure.
He was supported by the hard-working Solskjaer as United went in search of a second.
After the interval, Giggs tested Jerzy Dudek with a looping 30-yard half-volley that the Liverpool keeper did well to punch away.
But when referee Riley pointed to the spot, for the sixth time at Old Trafford this season, on 64 minutes, Dudek could do nothing to prevent Van Nistelrooy scoring his second.
England captain David Beckham was brought on for the remainder of the game and he set up Giggs for a rare home Premiership goal.
That was not the only rarity as United completed a league double over Liverpool for the first time in six seasons, with Solskjaer popping up with a fourth late on.
Man Utd: Barthez, Gary Neville, Ferdinand, Brown,
Silvestre (O'Shea 66), Solskjaer, Keane,
Phil Neville (Beckham 66), Giggs, Scholes (Butt 79),
Subs not used: Ricardo, Forlan.
Goals: van Nistelrooy 5 pen, 65 pen, Giggs 78, Solskjaer 90.
Liverpool: Dudek, Carragher, Hyypia, Traore, Riise,
Diouf (Smicer 71), Hamann, Gerrard, Murphy (Cheyrou 80),
Heskey, Baros (Biscan 6).
Subs not used: Arphexad, Mellor.
Sent off: Hyypia (4).
Booked: Diouf, Murphy, Gerrard.
Referee: M Riley (W Yorkshire).