Striker Robin van Persie came out on top in the battle of the Premier League's top scorers as Manchester United emerged from a tricky test unscathed against arch-rivals Liverpool. The Netherlands international continued his remarkable scoring spree with a close-range effort in the first half which was doubled after the break by Nemanja Vidic.
Liverpool substitute Daniel Sturridge overshadowed team-mate Luis Suarez by marking his league debut for his new club with a second goal in as many matches. Sturridge even had a chance to snatch a point late on, but United held on.
Van Persie - expertly and clinically - scored with virtually his first chance and could have had at least one other in the first half. Suarez toiled in vain but never got the remotest inkling of an opportunity against Rio Ferdinand and Vidic - reunited in the centre of defence for the first time since September - with his one effort coming just before the interval and only troubling the fans in the Stretford End.
United enjoyed the greater dominance in the opening half, as was to be expected from the home team, while not creating anything too threatening with Liverpool counter-attacking sporadically but faring even worse in the final third.
It changed in the 19th minute when, with United steadily building the pressure, the ball was worked from right to left for Patrice Evra to pick up in space. His low cross was the perfect invitation and Van Persie did what he does best, side-footing a shot past Reina.
The statistics now adding up for the Netherlands forward are startling. It was his 65th goal in 77 league matches, his 10th in the past 10 games, his fifth in five against Liverpool (three coming for Arsenal and the other at Anfield earlier in the season) and his 20th of the campaign.
Van Persie should probably have had another having charged through a gaping hole between centre-backs Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger to collect Ashley Young's through-ball but he uncharacteristically ballooned over.
Welbeck then skipped past Skrtel to fire over while Tom Cleverley saw a left-foot volley flash just wide of Jose Reina's left-hand post.
Only a brilliant goalline clearance from Skrtel after Van Persie's clever backheel from Rafael's cross prevented a second, with Reina taking a hefty whack from Shinji Kagawa in the aftermath which required lengthy treatment.
Sir Alex Ferguson's side have been in front at half-time in 211 previous league games at Old Trafford and never lost (199 wins and 12 draws) so the task facing Liverpool was stark without even taking into consideration their first-half performance.
Changes at half-time
United winger Ashley Young failed to reappear for the second half - replaced by Antonio Valencia - having injured himself after recklessly jumping into a tackle on Agger, for which he escaped any punishment.
However, the more significant introduction at the interval was that of Sturridge, whose pace up front provided much-needed support for Suarez and introduced a different dynamic for the United defence.
Wisdom had the chance to make a name for himself having charged forward 70 yards to exchange passes with Suarez only to fire hopelessly wide.
Within three minutes United were 2-0 up as Skrtel's foul on Welbeck on the edge of the area, which earned him a yellow card, allowed Van Persie to swing in a free-kick from which Evra's header deflected in off Vidic.
At that stage it appeared the game was up for the visitors but their first shot on target brought some hope. A low strike from Gerrard, on a rare foray to United penalty area, was only parried by David de Gea and Sturridge used his poacher's instinct to follow up the rebound.
The change was almost instantaneous as, Reina palming away Kagawa's shot aside, Liverpool moved into the ascendancy with substitute Fabio Borini, on his first appearance since early October because of a broken foot, volleying wide.
Sturridge had the chance to snatch an equaliser and the headlines with five minutes to go after Suarez's determination saw the ball break to his strike partner but the £12m signing leant back and his effort sailed over and United escaped to consolidate their position as Premier League leaders.