Ryan Giggs demonstrated his enduring value to Manchester United with the opening goal in a ruthless 2-0 home win over Everton on Sunday that put his side almost out of sight in the Premier League title race.
The 39-year-old Welshman slotted his side in front after 13 minutes to continue his extraordinary feat of having scored in every Premier League season since the competition started 21 years ago.
Robin van Persie was also on target for United before halftime as the leaders took full advantage of champions Manchester City’s shock 3-1 defeat at Southampton on Saturday.
With 12 games remaining, Alex Ferguson’s side have 65 points, 12 more than City, and are closing in on a 20th league title.
“We’ve got to win our games regardless of what happens with City and if we concentrate on our own games we’ll be OK,” Ferguson, whose side face a huge UEFA Champions League match away to Real Madrid tomorrow, told Sky Sports.
“I was going to make about seven changes for the game, but when I saw yesterday’s result I changed that because we knew if we got a result it would put us in a fantastic position,” he said.
At the other end of the table, Aston Villa claimed a vital 2-1 home victory over West Ham United to move out of the bottom three, Christian Benteke and Charles N’Zogbia the scorers.
A remarkable 4-4 draw with Everton in the final weeks of last season’s title race proved United’s undoing as City pipped them on the final day on goal-difference.
However, this time there were no slipups from Ferguson’s side as they recorded a 10th consecutive home league win.
Despite the proximity of the trip to Madrid, Ferguson resisted any temptation to rest key players — a mark of respect for an Everton side chasing a top-four finish and who beat United on the opening day of the season on Merseyside.
With Real manager Jose Mourinho watching in the stands, United produced a clinical performance, even if leading striker Van Persie was guilty of an astonishing miss early on when he took the ball past Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard, but blasted his shot against the outside of the post.
After Van Persie’s miss United did not have to wait long for their opener. The Dutchman picked out Giggs with a pull back and the wily veteran steadied himself, before curling a precise shot in off the post.
Everton enjoyed spells of possession, but on the stroke of halftime rightback Rafael released Van Persie with a clever reverse pass and the Dutchman again rounded Howard before shooting into the empty net, despite Johnny Heitinga’s desperate attempt to keep the ball out.
Villa’s first league win for nearly two months was a welcome relief for manager Paul Lambert, whose side climbed above Reading into 17th place, although Ashley Westwood’s late own-goal meant he had to endure a nail-biting finale.
A turgid opening 45 minutes offered few opportunities for either side, although Andreas Weimann somehow missed an open goal for Villa after West Ham goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen had failed to gather Benteke’s shot.
Benteke was the calmest person in the stadium as he rolled his spot-kick into the net in the 74th minute after Mark Noble was adjudged to have fouled N’Zogbia.
Five minutes later, N’Zogbia sent a sweetly-struck free-kick curling past Jaaskelainen to give Villa breathing space.
Westwood’s own-goal revived West Ham and Villa goalkeeper Brad Guzan twice saved his side in stoppage-time.
“It’s a huge win for us. We have been in positions of being goals up in a few games,” said Lambert, whose side moved a point above 18th-placed Reading.