LONDON // In the darkest moments following the 6-1 home defeat to Manchester City in October, Sir Alex Ferguson maintained his belief that his side would stay in contention at the top of the league until the turn of the year and then "kick on" in the second half of the season.
Such optimism seemed misplaced as City opened up a five-point gap and an injury-hit United failed to reproduce their outstanding early season form. Not for the first time, Ferguson proved his doubters wrong.
United’s 2-0 win over Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road yesterday lifted the champions to the top of the league, albeit briefly, and sent a message to City that they are likely to need a record points haul if they are to win the league.
Asked about the significance of going back to the top before City beat Arsenal 1-0, manager Ferguson said: "The important thing is to be there on New Year's Day.
"If you're involved right at the top part then you know the second half of the season, we'll relish that."
United's record of 39 points from their first 16 games is their most impressive start to a season in Ferguson's 25-year tenure, and the latest victory was in little doubt from the start.
The QPR faithful were still taking their seats and taunting the 3,047 travelling fans with chants of “You only live around the corner” when their team fell behind. Antonio Valencia crossed to Wayne Rooney from the right and United’s No 10 netted with a header from the edge of the six-yard box. There were just 51 seconds on the clock.
Ferguson's side have been less than spectacular, scoring a solitary goal in their last four away games, but they looked far more adventurous in a breathless game in west London. The 4-4-2 formation was more like 4-2-3-1 for much of a engaging first half in which they created many excellent chances.
A Jonny Evans header which struck the bar from close range and a Danny Welbeck effort which was disallowed for offside were among the better efforts. United dominated and the unlikely midfield pairing of Phil Jones and Michael Carrick got forward more than expected. Rooney was excellent, while QPR responded well and had chances of their own in an end to end encounter.
Michael Carrick killed off QPR’s hopes with a 55th-minute strike to make it 2-0. The much-criticised midfielder ran unchallenged from his own half before hitting a low drive past the otherwise outstanding Radek Cerny. It was Carrick’s first goal since January 2010.
Celebrating the novelty of two goals in an away game, the jubilant away fans hollered, “United, United top of the league”.
Their loyalty had been tested. With a midday kick off, many had left Manchester at 6am for the 200-mile journey south.
The QPR fans had mocked United's Champions League elimination, with songs proclaiming "You let your country down" and
“Thursday night, Channel 5”. The response? The not entirely unappealing prospect of “Thursday night in Amsterdam” as United have been drawn with Ajax in the Europa League.
Europe will become a side issue for United as the Premier League looks like a race between the Manchester giants. United, as they showed, will not giving up their title lightly.
Aston Villa 0 // Liverpool 2
Kenny Dalglish, the Liverpool manager, believes his team were good value for their win at Aston Villa yesterday. First-half goals from Craig Bellamy and Martin Skrtel sealed a 2-0 success at Villa Park.
“We passed the ball and moved it, hit the bar twice – I think it was well-deserved three points,” said Dalglish.
“I think the first goal was a bit fortunate but the second was a good flick-on from Martin. We get pleasure taking three points and that’s the greatest reward you get from work you do in training.”
Tottenham 1 // Sunderland 0
Tottenham moved up to third place in the Premier League after returning to winning ways against Sunderland at White Hart Lane.
Harry Redknapp’s men failed to test the Sunderland keeper Keiren Westwood in a dull first half, but they sprung to life on the hour and took the lead through the substitute Roman Pavlyuchenko’s goal.
The victory, which came a week after Spurs’ 11-match unbeaten run ended at Stoke, means they are now two points ahead of Chelsea ahead of the London derby between the two sides on Thursday.