AS if goaded on by their great rivals, Manchester United have used a range of means to come up with a way of responding to pressure placed on them by Liverpool form in recent weeks.
However despite Rafael Benitez’s side’s winning run coming to an end, the Old Trafford side clocked up another win as they close on a record-equalling 18th title.
A day after Liverpool’s 4-4 draw with Arsenal, Wayne Rooney’s ninth minute goal — his tenth in the Premier League this season — coloured an evening when there was a feeling that United were more than happy to sit on their lead and periodically cut Portsmouth apart, with Michael Carrick scoring a second late on.
Now three points clear a similar attitude to the remaining six matches will be enough for them to move level with Liverpool’s haul of league titles.
United face a tougher run-in, with home games against Manchester City and Arsenal still to come as well as the Champions League semi-finals against Arsene Wenger’s men but it is hard to believe that, three points ahead with a game in hand, they will allow Liverpool and Chelsea another opportunity.
After all, the defeats to Liverpool and Fulham last month were an interruption in a run that has now seen them win 14 of their last 16 Premier League matches.
Alex Ferguson had hoped the FA Cup semi-final at the weekend would have no effect last night yet for some the disappointment of the defeat to Everton on penalties was lingering and the Scot must have been concerned that when Dimitar Berbatov’s name was read about among the substitutes there was a distinct murmur of disapproval around Old Trafford.
After an impressive start to his United career last year, Anderson has become a more peripheral figure this season but, after Portsmouth had enjoyed the better of the early possession, it was the Brazilian who created the opening goal with the hosts’ first real attack.
Receiving the ball running towards his own goal, Anderson somehow fired a 50-yard pass around the corner to the left flank for Ryan GIggs and the veteran winger crossed for Rooney to tap in from just a few yards out.
There was an early concern for United, however, as Gary Neville limped off in the wake of the early breakthrough.
Anderson’s onslaught continued as he threaded a pass through for Rooney to shoot straight at David James, who threw the ball straight to the Brazilan only for the United midfielder’s effort to fly just wide of goal.
Neville’s replacement, John O’Shea met a Giggs corner just before the half hour only for Nabil Belhadj to head off the line and just after that James was out quickly to block from Giggs after he had been slid through by Rooney.
Giggs should have finished the game five minutes before the interval after the swiftest of United counter-attacks.
From O’Shea’s clearance, Sol Campbell inexplicably headed straight to Cristiano Ronaldo in space on the right and after a driving run, his cross found Giggs six yards from goal but the stand-in captain could only steer the ball past the post.
Not exactly free-flowing, United were still carving Portsmouth apart whenever they fancied and after Darren Fletcher’s clipped pass put Ronaldo into space down the right, the Portuguese’s cross was helped on by Rooney to the edge of the area, where Fletcher’s first-time drive flashed just wide.
After the restart, O’Shea limped off but the combination play between Rooney and Giggs was a joy all evening and the Englishman’s perfectly weighted pass encouraged his team-mate into a first touch that took him around Sylvain Distin but with just too much power for him to be able to keep the ball in.
The patient policy was always likely to give Portsmouth their moments and Jonny Evans hacked clear after Edwin van der Sar palmed Glen Johnson’s cross into a dangerous position and Peter Crouch failed to test the goalkeeper from Jermaine Pennant’s cross.
From a Pennant free-kick, Crouch’s header was held by Van der Sar at full stretch but with eight minutes left, Carrick put the game beyond Portsmouth, gathering a vintage pass from Paul Scholes, making his 600th United appearance, to slide past James.
It was not spectacular but United did just enough and unfortunately for Liverpool and Chelsea, that also looks like it will characterise their Premier League campaign.
Subs for Manchester United: O’Shea for Neville, 19, Rafael for O’Shea, 52, Carrick for Anderson, 76.
Sub for Portsmouth: Pennant for Nugent, 46
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