There is always one moment in every season when, for the team that are going to finish as champions, everything clicks, the worrying stops, all the hard work comes together and everyone knows it is going to be a year to remember. For Manchester United, this was quite conceivably that moment, another potentially decisive day to go with Steve Bruce's header against Sheffield Wednesday, Eric Cantona's volley at Newcastle, Andy Cole's lob against Tottenham and all the seminal moments in the portfolio of Sir Alex Ferguson's favourite Premier League wins.
That is not to say Ferguson will underestimate the strength of Chelsea's desire to prolong the argument. Yet the pity for United is that Javier Mascherano's buffoonery, and the debate it conjures up about the behaviour of modern-day footballers, will inevitably divert attention away from what was, in essence, a performance of authentic brilliance. Liverpool were dismantled from A to Z, losing to Wes Brown's first goal in almost three years, Cristiano Ronaldo's 34th of the season and a scorching effort from Nani on a day when Mascherano registered his nomination for Clot of theYear, acting as if he thought Sky should have redefined the coming together of England's top four clubs as "Surly Sunday".
Mascherano, to put it succinctly, lost the plot. His behaviour was contemptible and the Football Association will be obliged to take extra disciplinary measures when they consider the way he sought to take out his anger on the referee, Steve Bennett, in a scene more reminiscent of a Friday night punch-up. A lengthy ban should follow, but the real story here was not of one man self-imploding but a team reaching the point of maximum expression.
United had already made a convincing case for being the superior team by the time Mascherano paid the price for his dissent. The gulf in class then became wide enough to resemble an embarrassment for Benítez, his players and everyone associated with Liverpool, not least those supporters who were plunged into such a state of shock even their final chorus of "You'll never walk alone" was cut short.
By that stage they had seen their team out-passed, out-thought and, ultimately, outclassed. Some in the away end might try to argue that Bennett was to blame, but that would be merely passing the buck. Mascherano had been a red card waiting to happen ever since he scythed through Paul Scholes in the 10th minute and, in many respects, it was a surprise Bennett's patience held out as long as it did given the player's frequent sniping and sarcastic gestures. The referee did let himself down but that was later in the game when, in quick succession, Fernando Torres left Nemanja Vidic on the floor and Alvaro Arbeloa brought down Ryan Giggs. Both Liverpool players had already been booked but Bennett appeared to lose his nerve.
Liverpool needed all the help they could get because, at times, they were abject. The frenetic pace of these matches always ensures a higher number of misplaced passes than usual but, even so, Benítez will be alarmed by his team's inability to keep possession and, when they did have the ball, the lack of gumption or wit to do anything with it. It was bewildering, for example, to see Steven Gerrard misdirecting so many passes. Sadly for the manager, the same cannot be said of some of Gerrard's team-mates as they disappeared to the edges. It says everything about United's dominance, with Wayne Rooney at the hub of just about everything, that Edwin van der Sar managed to go the entire game without getting a single scuff of mud on his shorts.
At the other end, José Reina might want to find a dark room to consider his own performance. Granted, Reina made some excellent saves, denying Rooney, Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez all from point-blank range. Yet it was a mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous because he was also culpable in the opening two goals and at one point he seemed so flustered he could barely kick the ball straight. His match was summed up when he threw the ball directly to Anderson, escaping only because the Brazilian's shooting is not as good as his passing.
Anderson was not alone in being guilty of wastefulness and Ferguson was not exaggerating when he said Rooney and Ronaldo could have finished with hat-tricks. Ferguson has been frustrated by his team's profligacy recently but on this occasion it scarcely mattered from the moment, on 34 minutes, when Rooney crossed from the left and Reina and Martin Skrtel both failed to take decisive action. Brown has never been one for half-heartedness, rising between them to score with a brave header.
The defining moment of the game arrived 10 minutes later. Mascherano's offences were numerous and it was revealing that none of his team-mates seemed too sympathetic. On the contrary, Gerrard and Xabi Alonso looked tempted to grab him by the throat. They probably knew how much Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes would enjoy the extra space in midfield, the only surprise being that the home side waited until the 79th minute before scoring again.
Again, Reina will wince when he sees the replays, Ronaldo glancing in a header from Nani's corner as the goalkeeper flapped at thin air again. Then the pièce de résistance: Nani ducking between Gerrard and Skrtel and unleashing an unstoppable shot to crown United's best performance of the season.
How the managers compared
Sir Alex Ferguson Opted for the most experienced line-up at his disposal and, although hindered by a back problem, Rio Ferdinand's return was a no-brainer given his record against Liverpool
Rafael Benítez With only midweek internationals to fret over, and his team in fine form, starting with the side that defeated Reading was a natural choice
Ferguson The plan to stifle Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres worked to perfection
Benítez Had no reason to alter the tactics that had brought seven successive victories but the weaknesses of the system were exposed as his main assets were left isolated
Ferguson Obviously came before kick-off from the manager. United were on the front foot from the start
Benítez Not so much motivation as counselling. Stepped in when Mascherano had lost the plot but the team were deflated by the dismissal
Ferguson Nani came on and ended any Liverpool hopes
Benítez Benayoun for Babel restored quality to distribution
Ferguson Triumphed where others had failed in puncturing Liverpool's form and morale. A deserved win irrespective of Mascherano
Benítez Arrived with high hopes and was reduced to overseeing a damage-limitation exercise. The players failed their manager, not vice versa.
34' Brown 1-0
79' Ronaldo 2-0
81' Nani 3-0
Edwin Van der Sar, Wes Brown, Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Luis de Abreu Anderson (Carlos Tevez), Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs (Luis Carlos Nani), Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Scholes, Wayne Rooney
Jose Manuel Reina, Alvaro Arbeloa, Fabio Aurelio, Jamie Carragher, Martin Skrtel, Xabi Alonso, Steven Gerrard, Javier Mascherano, Ryan Babel (Yossi Benayoun), Dirk Kuyt, Fernando Torres (John Arne Riise)
Referee: Bennett, S
Venue: Old Trafford
Man Utd 2
Man Utd 23
Man Utd 16
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