Villa stun Liverpool, QPR finally win
Manchester City closed the gap on rivals United for all of about two hours on Saturday as the Premier League's top two both won. The race for Champions League spots is going Everton's way after they picked up a valuable point at Stoke while Liverpool were hammered by Aston Villa, and at the bottom QPR earned their first league win of the season.
Manchester United's lead at the top remains at six points after they predictably put Sunderland to the sword at Old Trafford, winning 3-1. Nemanja Vidic made a return to the bench for his first appearance since September for United, and goals from Robin van Persie, Tom Cleverley and Wayne Rooney made it a comfortable afternoon.
The visitors started brightly but almost contributed to their own downfall after 11 minutes, with Steven Fletcher sending his attempted clearance at a corner straight to Patrice Evra. The French defender took a touch to set himself, but his shot from 12 yards was poor. The outcome arguably would have been different had Van Persie been on the end of the chance, but he did not have to wait long for an opening of his own, once again aided by a Sunderland error. Ashley Young delivered from the flank, and former United man John O'Shea failed to keep a leash on the Dutchman, who made no mistake from close range.
Within four minutes it was 2-0 and this time it was a goal of sheer quality, Cleverley exchanging a one-two with Michael Carrick before opening his body to curl into the far corner. Rooney then added a degree of comfort on the hour, allowing Sir Alex Ferguson to introduce Vidic who could not mark his return with a clean sheet as Fraizer Campbell netted a close-range consolation against his former side.
Manchester City reacted to last week's defeat against United by weathering a second-half storm from Newcastle, eventually winning 3-1 at St James' Park. Roberto Mancini fielded arguably the best attacking combination at his disposal, and it paid off in an impressive first-half display that saw Sergio Aguero and Javi Garcia on the scoresheet.
Newcastle, badly stricken by injury, were hopeless in defence and lucky not to be four or five down by half-time. But they showed superb spirit to halve the deficit through Demba Ba, and wasted several chances to equalise before Yaya Toure wrapped up the points 12 minutes from time.
Aguero struck first in the 10th minute, tapping home Samir Nasri's selfless square pass after Toure's raking ball had split the home rearguard, and Carlos Tevez should then have made it two. Chances kept coming, with Nasri hitting an upright after a David Silva pass, while Tevez was foiled again by Tim Krul, who denied the Argentinian after Silva had played him clean through.
A second goal was inevitable but when it arrived it came with a tinge of hilarity as Javi Garcia sent his header goalwards at a corner, with Davide Santon completely missing his clearance with his swinging leg.
Newcastle responded early in the second period, with Ba heading past Joe Hart from Fabricio Coloccini's hopeful hook into the box. They should have levelled immediately when Papiss Cisse slashed wildly over from close to the penalty spot, but City eventually killed the game off on the break, Yaya Toure stretching to divert Pablo Zabaleta's cutback through the legs of Krul for three much-needed points.
Liverpool started quickly on home soil and almost led when Steven Gerrard linked with Luis Suarez, only to see his shot saved by Brad Guzan. Suarez then missed a better chance midway through the first half, sending a tame half-volley at Guzan after Jonjo Shelvey laid it on a plate with a cushioned layoff.
Instead it was Villa who struck first, Benteke firing low past Pepe Reina from 20 yards to stun the Kop. It got worse too for Liverpool as Andreas Weimann first looped the ball over the bar after Glen Johnson's mistake, and then made it 2-0 after Benteke's delightful backheel split the home side wide open.
Rodgers sent on Joe Cole to change things at the break, but Benteke strolled through some woeful Liverpool defending early in the second period for number three. The margin of victory could have been wider by full-time but Steven Gerrard's late flick ensured that Liverpool avoided equalling their heaviest home defeat in Premier League competition.
Liverpool are now five points adrift of fourth-placed Everton after David Moyes' side drew 1-1 with Stoke at the Britannia. A Ryan Shawcross own goal sent the Toffees on their way, but Kenwyne Jones equalised for Stoke.
An early penalty shout was raised by Everton in a tetchy start, but when that appeal was waved away they kept pressing until Shawcross gave them a helping hand moments before the break. Steven Pienaar's cross was sent into a dangerous area, and the ball skidded off the top of Shawcross' head to give the visitors a 36th-minute lead.
Stoke responded seven minutes into the second half through Jones, who towered above the Everton defence to capitalise on Tim Howard's hesitancy in the visitors' net. Moyes will likely be satisfied with a point, but he can expect to see Marouane Fellaini suspended retrospectively at some stage next week after he appeared to headbutt Ryan Shawcross.
At the bottom, QPR's wait for a first league win of the season is over after they beat Fulham 2-1 at Loftus Road. Harry Redknapp's first three games in charge of Rangers all ended in draws, but Adel Taarabt's brace means they are five points adrift of safety after 17 games.
Taarabt, the man Harry Redknapp once sold at Tottenham, was the most dangerous player on the pitch throughout the 90 minutes, and he carried the ball 20 yards before sending a deflected shot past Mark Schwarzer for a 52nd-minute opener. The enigmatic attacker then added a sublime second, producing a clever drag on the edge of the area before using the outside of his boot to find the far corner. Mladen Petric's 88th-minute reply made for a frantic finale.
In the day's other game, Wigan remained in the bottom three after they lost 2-1 to Norwich at Carrow Road. Anthony Pilkington opened the scoring for the home side after 15 minutes, driving home powerfully following Bradley Johnson's interception.
Wigan responded moments after half-time, with Shaun Maloney sending a lovely strike past Mark Bunn from Arouna Kone's layoff, but Wes Hoolahan scored the winner in the 64th minute.