Gary Pallister pounded Liverpool into abject submission and left only Arsenal as a distant threat to Manchester United's fourth FA Carling Premiership title in five years. And he also hammered out a warning to German giants Borussia Dortmund as they prepare to defend a slender one goal lead in Wednesday's European Cup second leg at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
The colossus of Old Trafford strode into Anfield and powered home a rare and priceless headed double to set up the 3-1 victory that lifts Alex Ferguson's men five points clear of a home side that literally had no defence.
Twice left cruelly exposed by the England giant on corners, jinxed goalkeeper David James's latest floundering handed the decisive third goal to the brilliant Andy Cole from a battle that was more about nerve and bottle than skill. But with Cole's darting runs and the precision work of David Beckham and Eric Cantona, the quiet young professionals of United had the edge from the start over their flashier rivals.
Robbie Fowler, desperate to sign off with a flourish before his three-match suspension for his reckless dismissal in Wednesday's Merseyside derby, was left forlorn and frustrated by United's masterful defenders. John Barnes also had a free header to level in between, but when James completely misjudged Gary Neville's early second half cross, the in-form Cole fully justified his selection ahead of Ole Solskjaer with a clinical finish for his seventh goal of the season.
It was only United's second win in 109 visits but it gave them the double over Liverpool this season, and that is the stamp of champions. United barely got a touch before Cole headed up Beckham's 90-second cross from the right for Cantona to launch an athletic volley dipping just over the bar. Cantona, trading passes with Scholes, then scraped a ball into the path of Cole, breaking clear of a square Liverpool defence, and James had to be quick off his line to plunge at his feet.
United's only vulnerability was of their own making, Pallister's misplaced pass allowing Stig Bjornebye to break down the right and cross through an outmanned defence. But Steve McManaman shot wide.
Pallister made up for that with the simplest of breakthroughs in the 12th minute, only his second league goal of the season. A 50-1 bet for first goalscorer, he mocked those odds as he was allowed to rise majestically in the crowded area, with Mark Wright a yard off him, to power Beckham's right wing corner past James.
Cole should have made it 2-0 in the 16th minute, nipping in ahead of James onto Bjorn Tore Kvarme's awful back header, hooking it round the goalkeeper and then completely miscuing with the goal at his mercy.
But two minutes later Liverpool were level from a corner, taken short by Bjornebye to McAteer on the right. He swung the ball over and this time it was Barnes with a free downward header from eight yards. Schmeichel's fingertips could not dig out the 33 year old's fourth goal of the season from inside his right hand post and a huge roar exploded from Scouse throats.
Fowler, highly-charged for the occasion, exchanged passes with McManaman to get through onto Schmeichel but pulled his shot wide of the far post. But Liverpool's defence and James' outlandish antics were giving Evans' palpitations on the sidelines and encouragement to United's talented forward line. They might have a penalty when Kvarme clearly blocked Cole's lob with his hand, ignored by referee Graham Poll, who later saw nothing wrong with Ronny Johnsen's well-timed interception which sent Fowler flying.
United littered the environs of their penalty area with free kicks as they resisted increasing Liverpool pressure, both Cantona and Keane making good headed clearances to supplement the sterling work of Pallister and Johnsen. The Norwegian defender nearly made it 2-1 in the 41st minute when he connected with an inswinging corner from the left, James showing great reactions to palm the ball up and over his bar. But from the second corner, this time it was Pallister ducking in towards the near post, again ahead of Wright, to glance a beautiful header home for his second, a sensational double for the big England defender.
James saved smartly from Cole as Liverpool's defence again wilted and it took only five minutes of the second half before Evans readjusted, replacing Jason McAteer with Stan Collymore to support Fowler, McManaman going to right midfield. But United snared the Liverpool spearhead in their offside trap to the f rustration of the home fans, and so on came Patrick Berger for Barnes after 66 minutes.
It was all-or-bust time and Collymore's looping header came down on Schmeichel's angle as the pressure was piled on the United goal. Gary Neville was booked for a foul on Collymore, followed by Pallister for a foul on Berger 11 minutes from time, but United had easily weathered the storm. And Fowler's chance to sign off with his 31st goal was denied when Schmeichel blocked at almost point blank range as the little pickpocket darted onto Berger's cross.
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