| Manchester United’s Ruud van Nistelrooy (right) gets past Liverpool’s Sami Hyypia in Manchester Saturday. United won 4-0. (AFP)
London, April 5 (Reuters): Arsenal’s lead at the top of the Premier League was down to just goal difference on Saturday after the champions were held 1-1 at Aston Villa and Manchester United crushed 10-man Liverpool 4-0.
United had put the pressure on Arsene Wenger’s side by moving on to 67 points with an early kick-off win at Old Trafford sealed by two Ruud van Nistelrooy penalties and strikes from Ryan Giggs and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Arsenal responded by taking a second-half lead through Freddie Ljungberg at Villa Park but an own goal by Ivory Coast midfielder Kolo Toure left Wenger’s men also on 67 points.
Goal difference, with 67 scored and 34 conceded by Arsenal, compared to United’s 55-27, kept the Double winners on top with just six matches left to play.
For Alex Ferguson’s men, the turning point came in the fourth minute, when defender Sami Hyypia bundled Van Nistelrooy over in the penalty area, resulting in a red card for the Liverpool captain and a spot-kick which the Dutch striker easily converted.
Midfield substitute Igor Biscan, who came on for striker Milan Baros in a tactical reshuffle after Hyypia’s exit, handed United their second penalty in the 65th minute, checking Paul Scholes in full flight.
Van Nistelrooy netted his 34th goal of the season with the spot-kick, Giggs struck in the 78th minute and Solskjaer fired the fourth past a motionless Jerzy Dudek as United avenged their 2-0 defeat by Liverpool in last month’s League Cup final.
United manager Alex Ferguson said he felt his team had taken their foot off the pedal in the first half, but that their second penalty put the match beyond Liverpool’s reach.
“You always want to kill off the game and I think that did it,” said Ferguson, who also had an eye on next week’s Champions League quarter final first leg with Real Madrid.
“The second half was fantastic for us, we played without running most of the time, saving energy, and that might help us on Tuesday night,” he told Sky Sports.
Harking back to their League Cup final defeat, Ferguson said: “It’s always a disappointment losing to Liverpool anytime, and they would say the same about us.
“But we’ve had the double (over them) in the league and I think we’re satisfied with that.”
Liverpool boss Gerard Houllier said: “I think the turning point was probably the fourth minute. You know when you play here, 11 men against 11 men, it’s going to be a difficult game.
“Losing your captain, losing your centre-back after four minutes, and playing 10 versus 11, we knew it was going to be difficult.
In the other early kick-off, Bolton Wanderers eased their relegation worries with a 2-0 victory over Manchester City.
Bolton’s Nigerian midfielder Jay-Jay Okocha missed an early penalty but helped to set up Bolton’s first for Henrik Pedersen in the 32nd minute.
Spanish defender Ivan Campo headed the second in the 52nd minute to seal Bolton’s third consecutive league win, lifting them to provisional 15th place in the table.