Manchester United Opens 12-Point Lead Atop Premier League Soccer

Manchester United beat Everton 2-0 to extend its lead atop English soccer’s Premier League to 12 points with 12 games left. Aston Villa defeated West Ham 2-1 to move out of the relegation zone.

Ryan Giggs and Robin van Persie got United’s goals at Old Trafford yesterday, lifting the Red Devils to 65 points through 26 matches. Defending champion Manchester City remains on 53 in second place after losing 3-1 at Southampton two days ago.

United manager Alex Ferguson said he’d considered making several team changes in preparation for the Champions League round-of-16 game at Real Madrid in two days. Instead, he chose a strong lineup to try to take advantage of City’s slip.

“I thought I’d make about seven changes, but when I saw the result yesterday I knew how important the game would be for us,” Ferguson told Sky Sports. “We knew if we could get a good result today it would put us in a fantastic position.”

Last season, United’s title challenge faltered with a 4-4 home draw with Everton in which the visitors recovered a two-goal deficit. Ferguson said the memory of that setback made his team more determined yesterday.

“They must remember their bad experiences,” Ferguson added. “We showed a steely determination this time.”

Everton’s defeat meant it lost ground in the chase for a Champions League berth next season. Third-place Chelsea has 49 points, Tottenham 48, Arsenal 44 and Everton 42 in sixth spot.

Everton was destabilized by a late team change as Sylvain Distin was taken ill just before the game and replaced by Johnny Heitinga.

Giggs Scores

With Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho among the spectators, United had an early chance when Van Persie was sent clear by Wayne Rooney. The Dutch striker took the ball around goalkeeper Tim Howard, though hit the post from a tight angle.

Giggs opened the scoring in the 13th minute, Van Persie setting up the chance for the 39-year-old to score from close range after indecision from Heitinga. Giggs has now scored in 23 straight seasons, including every year of the Premier League, which started in 1992.

Everton withstood pressure from United and came back into the match. Leon Osman tested David de Gea with a left-foot shot but the goalkeeper dived to his left to save.

United doubled its lead just before halftime. Van Persie beat the offside trap, went past Howard and slotted the ball into the net. Heitinga, running back to cover, could only help it over the line. It was Van Persie’s 23rd goal for United this season after he joined from Arsenal.

Goalmouth Scramble

Jonny Evans almost made it 3-0 in the 66th minute as Howard and Nikica Jelavic each denied the United defender in a goalmouth scramble. Jelavic almost put Everton back in the game in the last 10 minutes, forcing De Gea to push a shot away to maintain the shutout.

“We had to have the concentration, we knew what happened here against Everton last year,” Giggs told United’s website. “The main thing was obviously getting the result. The performance wasn’t as important, but I think we played well.”

At Villa Park, Andreas Weimann should have given the home team a second-minute lead, though blasted the ball wide of the goal from close range in the best chance of the half.

Villa’s Charles N’Zogbia missed a chance after the break before Darren Bent cleared in front of goal for the home team.

Villa took the lead in the 74th minute when Christian Benteke converted a penalty kick after N’Zogbia was fouled by Mark Noble. N’Zogbia made it 2-0 four minutes later, curling a free kick over the defensive wall and into the net. Ashley Westwood’s headed own goal made it 2-1 before home goalkeeper Brad Guzan made two injury-time saves to seal the victory.

Villa now has 24 points, ahead of Reading (23), Wigan (21) and last-place Queens Park Rangers (17).

Two days ago, Chelsea beat Wigan 4-1, Norwich and Fulham drew 0-0, Stoke defeated Reading 2-1 and Arsenal won 1-0 at Sunderland. QPR lost 4-1 at Swansea and Tottenham beat Newcastle 2-1. Liverpool hosts West Brom tonight.

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