Manchester United showed no sign of slowing up in their charge to the Premier League title, beating Everton 2-0 yesterday 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.
Everton slipped to sixth in the race for Champions League qualification, six points behind fourth-place Tottenham.
Also yesterday, 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.
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 their 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.
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.
SAT, FEB 9
WIGAN ATHLETIC 1
GOALS: CHELSEA: RAMIRES 23; HAZARD 56; LAMPARD 86; MARIN 90. WIGAN: MALONEY 58.
Frank Lampard provided another reminder of his enduring value to Chelsea by inspiring the victory over Wigan that ends a four-match winless run and eases the pressure on manager Rafael Benitez. The midfielder scored Chelsea's crucial third to move within four goals of Bobby Tambling's club record of 202. Goals from Ramires and Eden Hazard had put Chelsea 2-0 up, only for Shaun Maloney to pull a goal back for Wigan. Lampard fired in Chelsea's third goal before Marko Marin headed in late on.
NORWITH CITY 0 FULHAM 0
Norwich and Fulham played out a dismal draw at Carrow Road as the Canaries' winless run extended to nine games. City's new signing Luciano Becchio had a good chance for a debut goal after just five minutes but fired straight at Cottagers' keeper Mark Schwarzer. It turned out to be one of the only clear-cut opportunities in a game between two sides struggling for form.
MANCHESTER CITY 1
GOALS: PUNCHEON 17; S DAVIS 22; BARRY OG 48. CITY: DZEKO 39.
Manchester City's title defence suffered a huge blow on the south coast as they gifted Southampton victory with a series of glaring errors at the back. Gareth Barry gave the ball away for Saints' first goal, with Jason Puncheon following up to slot home after Jay Rodriguez's shot was saved. Steven Davis made it 2-0 after Joe Hart made a hash of Rickie Lambert's shot. Edin Dzeko replied on the break, but City's misery was complete when Barry inexplicably passed into his own net.
STOKE CITY 2 READING 1
GOALS: STOKE: HUTH 67; JEROME 81. READING: MARIAPPA 83.
Robert Huth and Cameron Jerome struck second-half goals to give Stoke their first win in 2013 and end Reading's resurgence at the Britannia Stadium. Adrian Mariappa scored, but Reading were unable to find another late recovery as Stoke hung on to leave the Royals just above the relegation zone. Huth headed in off the underside of the crossbar before substitute Jerome smashed in a second on the turn.
SUNDERLAND 0 ARSENAL 1
GOAL: ARSENAL: CAZORLA 35.
Santi Cazorla hit Arsenal's 50th league goal of the season to earn Arsene Wenger's 10 men a victory that lifted them to fifth spot in the table. The Spanish forward fired through a sea of Sunderland legs after good work by Theo Walcott before Carl Jenkinson was sent off for two bookable offences.
SWANSEA CITY 4 QUEENS PARK RANGERS 1
GOALS: SWANSEA: MICHU 8, 67; RANGEL 18; PABLO 50. QPR: ZAMORA 48
QPR remain four points adrift at the foot of the Barclays Premier League as their five-match unbeaten run came to an abrupt end at the Liberty Stadium. They were 2-0 down inside 18 minutes, Michu following up Nathan Dyer's shot and Angel Rangel stroking home after Julio Cesar parried his first effort. Rangers substitute Bobby Zamora replied from a keeper's fumble after the break. But Pablo Hernandez weaved through to score from an acute angle, and Michu hit Swansea's fourth with a deft finish.
TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR 2
NEWCASTLE UNITED 1
GOALS: TOTTENHAM: BALE 5, 78. NEWCASTLE: GOUFFRAN 24
Gareth Bale continued his extraordinary scoring run to hand Champions League-chasing Tottenham victory at the expense of Newcastle. Bale gave Spurs a great start when he fizzed in a free-kick from 25 yards, which beat goalkeeper Tim Krul. Yoan Gouffran equalised midway through the half when his firm shot went in off a slight deflection. But Bale made it four goals in three league matches when he ran on to Kyle Walker's ball before slotting in.
SUN, FEB 10
ASTON VILLA 2 WEST HAM UNITED 1
GOALS: VILLA: BENTEKE 74 PEN; N'ZOGBIA 78. WEST HAM: WESTWOOD 87 OG
Aston Villa's hopes of Barclays Premier League survival received a major boost as two quick-fire goals saw off West Ham and moved them out of the bottom three. After a poor first half, the hosts went ahead through Christian Benteke's penalty after Mark Noble clumsily fouled Charles N'Zogbia. N'Zogbia doubled the lead moments later, curling in a 20-yard free-kick. Ashley Westwood's late own goal set up a tense finale, but the hosts held on to the relief of the Villa Park crowd.
MANCHESTER UNITED 2 EVERTON 0
GOALS: UNITED: GIGGS 13; VAN PERSIE 45
Ryan Giggs scored for the 23rd consecutive season as Manchester United beat Everton to open up a 12-point gap at the top of the Barclays Premier League. Giggs tapped Robin van Persie's pass in off the inside of the post to sustain a scoring streak that goes back to his debut season in 1990-91. Van Persie doubled the margin of victory with his 19th goal of the campaign on the stroke of half-time. Everton's best chance came with Nikica Jelavic's low second-half shot.
Robin van Persie, Manchester United, 19
Luis Suarez, Liverpool, 17
Demba Ba, Newcastle/Chelsea, 14
Gareth Bale, Tottenham, 13
Edin Dzeko, Manchester City, 12
Christian Benteke, Aston Villa, 11
Rickie Lambert, Southampton, 11
Frank Lampard, Chelsea, 11
Theo Walcott, Arsenal, 11
Jermain Defoe, Tottenham, 10
Marouane Fellaini, Everton, 10
Steven Fletcher, Sunderland, 10
Adam Le Fondre, Reading, 10
Juan Mata, Chelsea, 10
Wayne Rooney, Manchester United, 10