United continues title charge with Everton win
Manchester United showed no sign of slowing up in its charge to the Premier League title, beating Everton 2-0 to move 12 points clear of the fading challenge of Manchester City.
Ryan Giggs and Robin van Persie - two players at opposite ends of their Old Trafford careers - were the first-half scorers at Old Trafford to justify one British bookmaker's decision to pay out on the title race more than three months before the season ends.
City lost 3-1 at Southampton on Saturday and United manager Alex Ferguson decided to play an almost full-strength team - regardless of Wednesday's Champions League match at Real Madrid - to fully capitalise on the champion's latest slip-up.
"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 said. "I was going to make about seven changes to 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."
The 40-year-old Giggs has now scored in every season since the inaugural Premier League in 1992-93 while Van Persie extended his league-high haul to 19 goals with the crucial second in stoppage time, having missed an open goal after rounding the keeper early on.
"The performance wasn't important but I thought we played well," Giggs said. "Now we just have to continue our good form."
Everton slipped to sixth in the race for Champions League qualification, six points behind fourth-place Tottenham.
Aston Villa climbed out of the relegation zone by beating West Ham 2-1, ending an eight-match winless run when the team picked up just three points from a possible 24.
Christian Benteke's penalty was added to five minutes later by Charles N'Zogbia's superb free kick as Villa took a 2-0 lead after 78 minutes. The hosts had to hang on for victory, however, after conceding an own goal in the 87th by Ashley Westwood.
"The stress levels are ridiculous," said Villa manager Paul Lambert, who has come under heavy recent pressure. "The pleasing thing is we have hopefully broken the camel's back with that."
A first league win since December 15 lifted Villa above Wigan and Reading in the standings, leaving Paul Lambert's side a point and a place clear of the bottom three.
United had drawn 4-4 at home to Everton in the title run-in last season, a costly result that helped City claw back from an eight-point deficit and earn its first title in 44 years.
There appears little chance of United slipping up this time though, especially considering City's current patchy form and the fact that the leaders are unbeaten now in 14 league games.
"You have to remember your bad experiences and that was one last year," Ferguson said. "We showed a steely determination this time."
City manager Roberto Mancini gave his team a "10 per cent" chance of winning the title after the loss to Southampton - and the odds may be even lower now.
Giggs capped a dominant start by United by rolling in a shot off the post after Van Persie had set him up in the 13th minute. The former Wales midfielder has scored in 23 straight campaigns, yet another milestone in his long career.
Rafael da Silva then supplied Van Persie with a similar chance to the one he had spurned earlier, and this time the Netherlands striker made no mistake, with Johnny Heitinga just failing to keep it out.
"We gave Manchester United an early start but I thought they were great," Everton manager David Moyes said.
"Manchester United are always a threat when you don't make enough of your opportunities. We didn't have that cutting edge."