A superb free-kick from Cristiano Ronaldo gave Manchester United a 2-1 home win over Blackburn to move them eight points clear at the top of the Premier League table.
United’s record-breaking run of clean sheets came to an end at Old Trafford, but Ronaldo’s moment ensured Sir Alex Ferguson’s side remain well on course to lift their third successive title. United took a 23rd minute lead when Wayne Rooney celebrated his first start since returning from a hamstring injury, by taking advantage of a mistake from defender Ryan Nelsen to score the opening goal. However, nine minutes later United conceded their first league goal in 1,334 minutes when Roque Santa Cruz slipped the ball into an empty net after goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak, standing in for the rested Edwin van der Sar, and Rio Ferdinand got in each others way. Jonny Evans looked to have put United back in front on the stroke of half-time but his header from Nani’s corner was harshly disallowed for a push. Blackburn nearly took a shock second-half lead when Nelsen struck the post when left unmarked in the area and he was made to pay for that miss when Ronaldo curled home a spectacular free-kick from the left on the hour mark. Both sides had half-chances to add to the scoresheet, but United held on to take the victory, although Liverpool can reduce their lead to five points again on Sunday if they beat Manchester City at Anfield. Elsewhere, Nicolas Anelka’s first half-strike gave Chelsea a vital 1-0 victory at Aston Villa in Dutchman Guus Hiddink’s first match in charge, lifting the London side above their opponents and into third place. French international Anelka, the league’s top scorer, struck his 21st goal of the season after 19 minutes to earn the Blues their first win at Villa Park for 10 years and keep alive their faint Premier League title hopes. It was Anelka’s first goal in nine league games and brought an end to Villa’s 13-game unbeaten sequence stretching back to early November.
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Frank Lampard created the goal with a superb piece of skill which enabled him to race clear of Curtis Davies and Stiliyan Petrov before sliding a pass through to Anelka, who showed great composure in dinking the ball over goalkeeper Brad Friedel and into the net. Villa could have levelled in the in the 33rd minute when Ashley Young’s curling free-kick struck the crossbar. Emile Heskey was the first to react to the rebound but he headed well wide. However, that was as good as it got for the home side as Chelsea enjoyed the bulk of the chances in the second half. Didier Drogba could have wrapped up the points after a mistake by Carlos Cuellar, but he lofted his shot over the bar, while Friedel denied Jose Bosingwa from close-range before producing another superb save to keep out Michael Ballack. Meanwhile, fifth-placed Arsenal failed to capitalize on Villa’s defeat, drawing 0-0 at home to Sunderland to lie six points behind Martin O’Neill’s side and in real danger of missing out on the Champions League for the first time since Arsene Wenger took over as manager in 1996. Even Andrei Arshavin’s debut for the club failed to conjure up a goal, as Arsenal played out a third successive Premier League goalless draw — although they did extend their unbeaten run to 13 matches. Elsewhere, Bolton continued their climb away from the relegation zone with a 2-1 home win over West Ham while Stoke remain fourth bottom after conceding an injury time goal to draw 2-2 with Portsmouth in a match where all four goals were scored in the final 15 minutes. Meanwhile, Middlesbrough remain second bottom of the table as they were held 0-0 at home by Wigan, making it a club record 14 Premier League games without victory.