Striker Robin van Persie came out on top in the battle of the Premier League's top scorers as Manchester United emerged from a tricky test with a 2-1 win against arch-rivals Liverpool. The Holland international continued his remarkable scoring spree with a close-range effort in the first half which was doubled after the break by Nemanja Vidic.
Liverpool substitute Daniel Sturridge overshadowed team-mate Luis Suarez, who began the day one behind Van Persie on 15 top-flight goals for the season, by marking his league debut for his new club with a second goal in as many matches and had a chance to snatch a point late on, but United held on, if somewhat unconvincingly.
It was billed as the battle of the Premier League's two best strikers. Unfortunately it never lived up to the pre-match hype.
Van Persie - expertly and clinically - scored with virtually his first chance and could have had at least one other in the first half. Suarez toiled in vain but never got the remotest inkling of an opportunity against Rio Ferdinand and Vidic - reunited in the centre of defence for the first time since September - with his one effort coming just before the interval and only troubling the fans in the Stretford End.
In spite of the age-old rivalry between England's two most-decorated clubs the first quarter of the game was something of a non-entity. That changed in the 19th minute when, with United steadily building the pressure, the ball was worked from right to left for Patrice Evra to pick up in space. His low cross was the perfect invitation and Van Persie did what he does best, side-footing a shot past Reina.
The statistics now adding up for the Holland international are startling. It was his 65th goal in 77 league matches, his 10th in the past 10 games, his fifth in five against Liverpool (three coming for Arsenal and the other at Anfield earlier in the season) and his 20th of the campaign.
Van Persie should probably have had another having charged through a gaping hole between centre-backs Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger to collect Ashley Young's through-ball but he uncharacteristically ballooned over.
Liverpool, possibly due to the inexperience of the likes of Andre Wisdom, Raheem Sterling and Joe Allen, appeared to crumble. Allen, who is so often hailed for his possession statistics, passed the ball straight to Danny Welbeck and the Wales midfielder's embarrassment was only saved by a block from Agger. Welbeck then skipped past Skrtel to fire over while Tom Cleverley saw a left-foot volley flash just wide of Jose Reina's left-hand post.
Only a brilliant goalline clearance from Skrtel from Van Persie's clever backheel from Rafael's cross prevented a second, with Reina taking a hefty whack from Shinji Kagawa in the aftermath which required lengthy treatment.
Sir Alex Ferguson's side have been in front at half-time in 211 previous league games at Old Trafford and never lost (199 wins and 12 draws) so the task facing Liverpool was stark without even taking into consideration their first-half performance.
United winger Ashley Young failed to reappear for the second half - replaced by Antonio Valencia - having injured himself after recklessly jumping into a tackle on Agger, for which he escaped any punishment. However, the more significant introduction at the interval was that of Sturridge, whose pace up front provided much-needed support for Suarez and introduced a different dynamic for the United defence.
Wisdom had the chance to make a name for himself having charged forward 70 yards to exchange passes with Suarez only to fire hopelessly wide.
Within three minutes United were 2-0 up as Skrtel's foul on Welbeck on the edge of the area, which earned him a yellow card, allowed Van Persie to swing in a free-kick from which Evra's header deflected in off Vidic.
At that stage it appeared the game was up for the visitors but their first shot on target brought some hope. A low strike from Gerrard, on a rare foray to United penalty area, was only parried by David de Gea and Sturridge used his poacher's instinct to follow up the rebound. The change was almost instantaneous as, Reina palming away Kagawa's shot aside, Liverpool moved into the ascendancy with substitute Fabio Borini, on his first appearance since early October because of a broken foot, volleying wide.
Sturridge had the chance to snatch an equaliser and the headlines with five minutes to go after Suarez's determination saw the ball break to his strike partner but the £12million signing leant back and his effort sailed over and United escaped to consolidate their position as Premier League leaders.
Robin van Persie produced another moment of magic to underline why Roberto Mancini fears he will cost Manchester City their Premier League title. Although Javier Hernandez also managed a smartly-taken double as Manchester United cruised past Wigan to preserve their seven-point lead at the top, it was Van Persie who stamped his class on proceedings.
His 18th goal of the season was one of his best, calmly stepping inside Ivan Ramis before firing into the corner with his supposedly weaker right-foot. And as he tapped Danny Welbeck's square ball into an empty net in stoppage time, it means Van Persie has now scored eight goals in his last eight games, an even better strike-rate than the eight in 11 Eric Cantona managed in his 1996 one-man title drive.
Sir Alex Ferguson has already likened Van Persie to Cantona with the effect he is having on the entire United squad. It is difficult to argue with that assessment, just as it is difficult to see Ferguson's squad tossing away their advantage as they did so uncharacteristically 12 months ago. United's failure to get to grips with Wigan's three-man defence in the corresponding fixture last term that condemned them to a defeat which triggered that downward spiral which cost them the title last season.
And they were in no mood to be similarly exposed this time around.
Ferguson filled his midfield, denying Roberto Martinez's men the space to implement an intended passing game. The Latics were forced into far more long balls than normal and though the first 25 minutes lacked penalty-box action, slowly United were draining the life out of their opponents.
The warning came when Ryan Giggs lifted a superb crossfield ball beyond Wigan's defence, which Hernandez reached, only to be correctly ruled offside as he beat Ali Al Habsi.It was a signal of intent though.
And when Jonny Evans nipped in front of Arouna Kone to intercept Gary Caldwell's poorly-hit clearance, the Northern Irishman advanced far enough to divert Tom Cleverley's square ball into the path of Patrice Evra. After one fresh air shot, Evra let fly with a low stinger which Al Habsi could not hold, allowing Hernandez to pounce from close range. It was the Mexican's 11th goal of the season and his 30th overall in the Premier League for United. Remarkably, all 30 have come from inside the area.
With the visitors now turning the screw, Wigan desperately needed to reach the interval without sustaining further damage. Van Persie ensured they did not make it.
Between them, Ferguson and Mancini have, over the past week, underlined the Dutchman's value to the Red Devils cause. Brilliance is not hard to spot though.
And after a mix-up in midfield gifted United possession deep inside the Wigan half, the hosts could not afford Ivan Ramis' slip, which allowed Van Persie a couple of extra seconds to decide what to do with Hernandez's pass. Ramis recovered his ground, only for Van Persie to step inside the defender and find the far corner with a right-footed effort of unerring accuracy. It was the work of a true world-class talent.
There was little chance of United throwing away the advantage he gave them today. Other than a wafer-thin offside call that went against Kone, who tapped home Franco di Santo's low cross, the visitors were completely dominant. No-one could begrudge them their third, just after the hour, when Van Persie's free-kick deflected into Hernandez's path. And the striker was once again in the box as he delivered the first-time finish.
United's job was done, as Ferguson confirmed by withdrawing Michael Carrick, who more than anyone has drove himself into the ground for his team during this productive Festive programme, in which they have dropped just two points. And to think three-quarters of the work has been done without Wayne Rooney, who is still to recover from the minor knee injury he suffered on Christmas Day.With Shinji Kagawa also getting a valuable 20 minutes under his belt, United are in a position of strength, and fittingly Van Persie had the last word two minutes from time.
Robin van Persie's 17th goal of the season ensured Manchester United claimed yet another scalp on their march towards what they hope will be a 20th league title at Old Trafford.
Yet the performance of skipper Nemanja Vidic was equally notable, as he guided United to only their fourth Premier League clean sheet of the season after Gareth McAuley's early own goal had put the hosts in front against West Brom. Plagued by injury for the past 16 months, and restored to the United line-up for the only the second time since his most recent knee operation, Serbian Vidic used all of his experience to ensure the hosts were not made to pay for a lacklustre second-half display.
And when Van Persie curled home a brilliant effort in the final minute, the Red Devils` handsome seven-point lead at the top of the table was preserved. After all the furore around Ferguson's confrontation with Mike Dean on Boxing Day, mascot Fred the Red probably approached the United boss with a degree of trepidation as the pair met on the touchline prior to kick off. The exchange was cordial, though, as was the jocular encounter between Ferguson and fourth official Phil Dowd shortly afterwards.
And once the match started, referee Jon Moss did little to get the United manager vexed, beyond an inexplicable free-kick against Tom Cleverley when the midfielder had been looking at a dropping ball on the edge of his own box when Billy Jones crashed into him. By that point, United had got their noses in front courtesy of McAuley, who could only divert a bullet cross from Ashley Young into his own net. It should have been more.
Vidic was wide with a couple of headers and Gabriel Tamas turned away Michael Carrick's goalbound shot. The nearest United went to doubling their lead was when Young strode onto a deflected Antonio Valencia cross. He hit it sweetly on the half volley, only for former Red Devils keeper Ben Foster to respond with a brilliant save, which earned his slice of good fortune when he shoved the ball onto the crossbar and over.
Danny Welbeck - afforded a rare start in a central striking berth - and Shinji Kagawa - back for the first time since suffering a knee injury in October - both sparkled for the hosts, who were so obviously on top.
With a defence that has leaked so many goals this season, Ferguson would not have felt safe. Yet the presence of Vidic offered some degree of comfort. The Serbian has been absent so often over the past 15 months it has almost been forgotten what a calming influence he is. His bravery is unquestioned too. And when Chris Brunt drilled a free-kick goalwards in the final throes of the opening period, it was no surprise Vidic should be the one to emerge from a crowd of bodies having headed it away.
However, with the clock ticking by and heavy rain continuing to pour down on a sodden surface that required a precautionary inspection a couple of hours before kick-off, United started to get stuck. Young completely miskicked when Valencia's cross presented a golden opportunity on the hour, which offered a Baggies outfit already growing in self-belief more reason for optimism.
Had Brunt's piledriver been either side of David de Gea it surely would have brought the visitors level. As it was, the shot went straight to the Spain keeper.
Little wonder Van Persie's arrival midway through the second period was greeted with such enthusiasm, underlining the Dutchman's influence since his summer move from Arsenal.
West Brom were in the mood, though. And with United's passing becoming increasingly sloppy, they continued to push on with force. Vidic needed to be in the right place to clear a Romelu Lukaku cross that threatened panic inside the United six-yard box and the sight of his fellow defenders throwing themselves at anything that moved, it had turned into an unedifying backs-to-the-wall effort so unlike the thrill-a-minute action this stadium has become used to.
Van Persie was denied by Foster with nine minutes remaining but the former England keeper could do nothing about the Dutchman's late shot, which curled expertly into the top corner from Paul Scholes' pass.
If anyone wants to know why the Premier League is the best in the world, this is it. Subtlety? Forget it. Technique? Lacking. Defences? Woeful. Excitement? Off the scale.
Twenty-four hours after Santa did his rounds, Manchester United and Newcastle served up a present few would have equalled from under their trees. Seven goals. Controversy. The Ferguson hairdryer switched onto full blast.
And in the final minute, Javier Hernandez netted his 10th goal of the season to send Manchester United seven points clear at the top of the table.
Three times Newcastle led in the search for their first Old Trafford win since 1972. Three times they were pegged back.
Their pain at defeat and a serious looking injury to Vurnon Anita the only sad aspects of a staggering day that showed off all that is so alluring about English football.
After stumbling at Swansea, the last thing Sir Alex Ferguson wanted was a nosedive against Newcastle. Yet the worries began when the teams were announced. With Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young injured and Danny Welbeck out through illness, Ferguson was short of attacking options beyond Hernandez and Robin van Persie.
Even more concerning was the presence of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes in the same starting line-up for the first time since September. With a combined age of 77, a sizeable number of Red Devils followers now believe it is time one of the pair - or both - should be pensioned off.
It is a harsh judgement given what Giggs and Scholes have done down the years, but with Michael Carrick also present it was clear Newcastle were not going to be over-run down the middle of the pitch. For all this, it was in defence where the hosts were found so badly wanting.
The conditions were against him, but after Carrick gifted the visitors' possession to the visitors cheaply inside his own half, David De Gea should have done much better than meekly parry Demba Ba's skimmer straight to James Perch. For a player who had never previously scored for Newcastle, Perch could hardly have hoped for an easier opportunity to break his duck.
Behind once more, United's attempts to force their way back were not convincing. But when Van Persie drilled a free-kick into the Newcastle box, Hernandez pounced on the loose ball. The Mexican's shot was blocked by Tim Krul, only for Jonny Evans to slide into the empty net.
It was the start of a hectic period for the Northern Irishman, who was booked for handball after becoming the third player this season - following Rooney and Gareth Bale - to score at both ends. That hardly tells the whole story though, as the debate over what now constitutes offside erupted after Evans turned a shot from United old-boy Danny Simpson past De Gea.
As Graham Poll quickly confirmed referee Mike Dean had got it right, it can only be assumed Papiss Cisse remained 'non-active' despite pressurising Evans from an offside position. Ferguson was not similarly convinced. As Dean made his way onto the pitch for the start of the second-half, Ferguson confronted the referee to make his feelings known. Fourth official Neil Swarbrick also got it in the neck before the United manager rounded on assistant referee Jake Collin, who had initially raised his flag, believing Cisse had got the final touch. Thankfully, Dean had the good sense to speak to his fellow official at the time, ensuring justice was done.
For United, the spin-off was that the hairdryer treatment sparked a marked improvement and just before the hour Evra hauled them level for a second time when his low shot beat Krul to the bottom corner. +
Yet the cruise to victory never materialised. Instead came more of the Kamikaze defending that has characterised United's season. Red Devils old-boy Gabriel Obertan streaked down the wing and delivered a perfect cross for Cisse to smash home.
Newcastle held this lead for three minutes before Van Persie drove in his 16th goal of the season after Krul had saved his initial shot.
Now Ferguson and Alan Pardew could only stand on the touchline and watch as this breathless, chaotic game headed for its conclusion. United fury at a handball claim against Fabricio Coloccini that went unheeded was replaced by anguish as both Van Persie and Hernandez went close.
De Gea got away with a near-calamitous misjudgement when he allowed Sammy Ameobi's shot to roll past him, thinking it was going wide, only for it to hit a post and rebound straight back. Hernandez was denied by Krul at the other end before Van Persie headed over as injury-time approached.
Like two heavyweights slugging it out, swinging for all they were worth, their reliance on instinct total, there was one punch left.
And with it Hernandez knocked Newcastle out.