Goals from Rafael and Ryan Giggs helped Manchester United beat Queens Park Rangers 2-0 at Loftus Road as the Premier League’s top and bottom sides moved further away from their rivals.
Right-back Rafael hit a contender for goal of the season on 24 minutes, while Giggs – on his 999th senior competitive game for club and country – fired a rasping finish past Julio Cesar with 10 minutes remaining.
QPR battled gamely but United created more chances, with Cesar the busier of the two keepers and Giggs hitting the woodwork, although David De Gea did the occasional good stop in an otherwise quiet afternoon for the Spaniard.
The result means United are 15 points clear of main rivals Manchester City, who face Chelsea on Sunday. Meanwhile QPR have just 17 points after 27 matches, are six points behind second-bottom Reading and seven away from 17th with time running out.
It was not all good news for United though as striker Robin van Persie limped off with an injury sustained in the build-up for the opening goal. He is now a doubt for the second leg of the Champions League clash with Real Madrid a week on Tuesday.
QPR’s organisation belied their league position, although going forward they struggled to break United down as a series of wild long-range efforts did little to work De Gea: while Adel Taarabt looked dangerous at times, their best opportunity in the first half was when Rafael comfortably cleared from the far post at a corner.
United were at their most dangerous on the counter and from set pieces, with free-kicks from Ashley Young and Giggs seeing Nani and Nemanja Vidic head wide respectively, while Javier Hernandez and Van Persie were denied by good goalkeeping from Julio Cesar.
The visitors deserved their 24th-minute lead, and it was some strike from full-back Rafael, who does not score many but usually makes the monthly top 10 when he does.
Van Persie had forced a decent parry from Cesar after finding space on the right, with the loose ball landing to Rafael 25 yards out on the right. The 22-year-old, on the move, swung his right boot at the bouncing ball, sending a rasping drive across his fellow Brazilian and into the top left corner, Cesar left helpless by its pace and accuracy.
After releasing the initial shot, Van Persie picked up an injury colliding with a cameraman, the Dutchman replaced by Danny Welbeck before the beak after failing to run it off. He will surely be rested for the Premier League clash with Norwich next weekend with Real Madrid in mind the following Tuesday.
Towards the end of the first half there was a moment of controversy as Andros Townsend appeared to stamp on the head of Patrice Evra as they tussled for a ball, with the referee’s decision to award a drop ball not clarifying whether he had not seen the incident or deemed it accidental.
The second half saw United increase the pressure on the visitors, as Young twice put in teasing centres from the left that Nani and Welbeck failed to exploit.
Wayne Rooney, who came off the bench after recovering from illness, should have extended their lead but was denied by a flying block from Clint Hill, while QPR had a rare shot on target when another sub Loic Remy stung the palms of De Gea.
United were by far the dominant force though and they added the expected second from a clinical counter attack, as a fantastic reverse pass from Nani sent Giggs through, the veteran midfielder steadying himself as Hill stood statuesque before firing a low shot across Cesar and inside the far post.
Soon afterwards Giggs almost netted a nonchalant chip, which came back off the woodwork, while there was a display of fight from QPR as Chris Samba powered a header off the outside of the post.
But there was no way back for Harry Redknapp’s side, whose position in the top flight looks increasingly precarious after Wigan moved out of the bottom three at Aston Villa’s expense.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Ryan Giggs (Manchester United) – The old man just keeps on going, constantly involved in attack and defence, scoring a great finish and almost grabbing a wonder goal late on.
QPR: Cesar 6, Bosingwa 5, Samba 6, Hill 6, Traore 5, Townsend 5, Granero 5, Mbia 6, Mackie 5, Taarabt 7, Zamora 6; Subs: Jenas 6, Remy 6, Hoilett N/A
Man Utd: De Gea 7, Rafael 8, Evra 6, Ferdinand 7, Vidic 6, Giggs 8, Carrick 6, Nani 7, Young 6, Van Persie 6, Hernandez 6; Subs: Valencia 6, Rooney 6, Welbeck 6