Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice as champions Manchester United returned to the top of the Premier League on goal difference from Arsenal after a 2-0 win at home to Portsmouth.
The Gunners had briefly been at the head of the table after their 3-0 victory against Newcastle at the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday.
But their chances of staying there ahead of this weekend’s fixtures were all but erased inside the first 13 minutes at Old Trafford on Wednesday as Ronaldo’s double took his tally for the season to a remarkable 27 goals in 24 matches and nine in his last five.
United manager Sir Alex Ferguson claimed Ronaldo’s second goal was the best free-kick in Premier League history.
”That without doubt must be the best I’ve seen in the Premier League,” Ferguson said. ”From that distance he is going to hit them. No keeper in the world would save that … It’s a delight to see, terrific.”
In the day’s other Premier League matches, third-placed Chelsea remained four points behind the leading duo after a 1-0 win at home to Reading.
Everton stayed fourth but were left 10 points adrift of the top three following a goalless draw with Tottenham at Goodison Park.
Liverpool, fresh from the embarrassment of shipping two goals against non-league Havant and Waterlooville in the FA Cup, went five games without a league win after conceding late on in a 1-0 defeat against West Ham.
The result saw Liverpool drop down into seventh place, a massive 17 points off top spot.
”It was a bad result for us, especially in this type of game when you are attacking and have chances. We didn’t take them and in the last minute they got the penalty,” Benitez said.
”We deserved to win but you cannot change the result. We need to improve in the league.”
Manchester City leapfrogged Liverpool into sixth position with a 1-1 draw away to basement club Derby County.
Ninth-placed Portsmouth, whose away league record this season is second only to that of Chelsea, may have won seven times on their travels this term but their hopes of a first victory at Old Trafford since 1957 lasted until just the 10th minute.
Nani’s superb through-ball found Ronaldo and the Portugal winger’s cool finish beat David James.
And three minutes later Ronaldo reduced the England goalkeeper, making his 500th Premier League appearance, to the role of a spectator with a brilliant 25-yard free-kick that arrowed into the top left corner of James’s net.
Germany international Michael Ballack marked his return from injury after two games out with a calf strain by putting Chelsea ahead at Stamford Bridge with a 32nd minute header from Paulo Ferreira’s cross.
”You cannot relax when you don’t get a second goal. We missed chance after chance but it was OK in the end,” Chelsea manager Avram Grant said of his side’s hard-fought win.
At Upton Park, Liverpool were heading for a fifth straight league draw until, in stoppage time, West Ham were awarded a penalty after Jamie Carragher fouled Freddie Ljungberg and Mark Noble scored from the spot.
Derby, whose only previous league victory this season came back in September with a 1-0 win over Newcastle, went ahead at Pride Park after a 47th minute own-goal by China international Sun Jihai.
But Daniel Sturridge, who scored after coming on a substitute during City’s 2-1 FA Cup exit at the hands of Sheffield United, equalised for the visitors just after the hour mark in what was only his second appearance in all competitions this season for Sven-Goran Eriksson’s side. — Sapa-AFP