Carrick sealed United's victory with a neat finish on 82 minutes
By Phil McNulty
Chief football writer at Old Trafford
Manchester United reasserted their authority over the race for the Premier League title with a crucial victory over Portsmouth at Old Trafford.
Wayne Rooney - recalled after injury - put them on their way with a simple finish from Ryan Giggs's cross after nine minutes.
And substitute Michael Carrick wrapped up the win when he fired in an emphatic strike eight minutes from time after Paul Scholes delivered a trademark slide-rule pass on his 600th appearance for United.
Sir Alex Ferguson's side produced a performance that was workmanlike rather than spectacular, but United's only objective was the victory that puts them three points clear of Liverpool with a game in hand.
If there was a disappointment for United, it came in the shape of a missed opportunity to improve their goal difference against a Portsmouth side that rarely troubled keeper Edwin van der Sar.
Giggs was denied twice by England keeper David James, and also missed from close range as United dominated for long spells without emphasising their superiority until Carrick struck late on.
Rooney was United's main source of inspiration as they looked to capitalise on Liverpool's failure to beat Arsenal in Tuesday's 4-4 classic at Anfield.
This was no classic, indeed for long spells it was distinctly low-key, but the result mattered more than the performance and United boss Ferguson looked a happy man as he strode away at the final whistle, to receive further good news that rivals Chelsea had been held to a draw by Everton at Stamford Bridge.
Ferguson, predictably, made nine changes from the side that lost the FA Cup semi-final against Everton at Wembley on Sunday.
And the significance of Rooney's return was emphasised when he enabled United to shake off early lethargy by putting them ahead after nine minutes.
Man Utd will not become complacent - Phelan
Anderson started the move with a raking pass to Giggs on the left flank, and as Pompey appealed in vain for offside, he delivered an inviting cross for Rooney to slide home from point-blank range.
There was concern amid the celebrations as it became clear that Gary Neville, whose season has been dogged by recurring injury problems, was struggling again and he limped off, to be replaced by John O'Shea.
Rooney's goal deflated Portsmouth's early confidence, and the remainder of the first half was a tale of United creating - and wasting - a succession of presentable opportunities.
O'Shea's header was cleared off the line by Nadir Belhadj and James plunged bravely to block Giggs after he was cleverly played in by Rooney.
Giggs was the culprit again six minutes before the interval when Sol Campbell unwittingly set Cristiano Ronaldo free with a misplaced header but the veteran bundled the resulting cross wide from six yards.
Scholes set up United's second on his 600th appearance
There was one final opportunity for dominant United in the dying seconds of the half, when Darren Fletcher pulled his shot wide after being set up by Rooney.
The visitors, Peter Crouch apart, were showing little in attack and boss Paul Hart made a change during the interval, replacing David Nugent - who had been hobbling after a challenge that earned Nemanja Vidic a booking - with Jermaine Pennant.
O'Shea was caught by a poor challenge from Belhadj moments after the re-start, and he was replaced by Rafael da Silva after 52 minutes.
Rooney had been at the heart of all of United's best work, and an instinctive flick again released Giggs in the area, but James was swiftly off his line to make a decisive claim.
United had a rare anxious moment on the hour when Glen Johnson broke free in the area and forced the previously unemployed Van der Sar to push his low cross to safety.
Substitute Pennant then squandered a good opportunity when he arrived unmarked in the area, but instead of shooting he pulled a poor cross behind Crouch, who could only steer a volley wide.
The same pair then combined as Pennant's free-kick found Crouch, whose header was saved by Van der Sar.
United's second-half display had plunged into mediocrity, but it was Rooney again who almost lifted Old Trafford's spirits when he raced clear into the area, only for James to once again come to Pompey's rescue.
Hart encouraged by Pompey display
Ferguson's decision to replace Anderson with Carrick was something of a surprise, but it produced the required effect as the England midfield man sealed the points and United's return to the top of the league with eight minutes left.
Scholes must take huge credit, with a glorious pass that slid into the path of Carrick, who shot across the defiant figure of James into the bottom corner.
It allowed United to relax and enjoy the closing stages - safe in the knowledge that they are firmly in charge of their own title destiny.
Portsmouth manager Paul Hart:
"The players are a bit down, they thought they could get something out of the game.
"Having rode our luck a bit in the first half, I thought at times after the break we controlled the game and were a bit unlucky not to get a goal
"We felt we could come here and get something, but if the players play like that, they'll be hard to beat."
Van der Sar, Neville (O'Shea 13), Vidic, Evans, Evra, Fletcher, Scholes, Anderson (Carrick 76), Giggs, Ronaldo, Rooney, O'Shea (Rafael Da Silva 52).
Subs Not Used: Kuszczak, Berbatov, Nani, Tevez.
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