It is almost impossible but look beyond the handshakes, the fury, the tunnel bust-up, the provocative celebration, one manager's enraged comments and another's embarrassment and one might spot that this was not about a victory for Patrice Evra. It was a day when Manchester United returned to the Premier League summit with something approaching the style and authority they were supposed to have lost. They have bigger fights to win than a poisoned dispute with Luis Súarez and Liverpool.

"Patrice is a great lad. He gets on with everyone and everyone loves him. I don't think it was a case of doing it for Patrice, though," said Jonny Evans, the United defender. "It was doing it for what the whole club has been through and especially because of the rivalry and, of course, we wanted to be top of the league. We are trying to win titles and that is more at the forefront of our mind than just doing it for Patrice."

Though Manchester City regained first place the following day and, after Súarez's consolation, there was a nervousness to the final 10 minutes that could have been avoided with greater ruthlessness in attack and energy in the otherwise commanding legs of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, with polished support from Antonio Valencia and Michael Carrick the veterans formed a unit that comfortably eclipsed the Liverpool midfield, containing £40m of its summer refurbishment in Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing but anonymous throughout.

Wayne Rooney's brace inside three minutes at the start of the second half took his season's total to 21, 17 in the league, and gave United a cushion that Ferguson was annoyed they sat on after the boyhood Evertonian wasted an inviting chance for his hat-trick on the hour. "It could have been three or four," the United manager said. There was consolation to be found not only in victory and veterans, however, but the continued improvement in the form of Danny Welbeck, Rafael da Silva and notably Evans as the run-in approaches.

The Belfast-born defender, criticised in the past but dominant on Saturday, added: "People have been saying we haven't played good football but I think we are playing the way United played a few years ago in that, if you score a couple, we will score more. We got criticised for that after the Man City game for conceding too many but since Scholesy came back we have been able to control the game from midfield. We have had experience and creativity. Michael Carrick has also been fantastic. He has been playing the ball forward to the strikers. During the game some of the passing to the front men was unbelievable. I remember thinking to myself what a great pass time and time again. We have pace on the wings and are playing some great attacking football."

Man of the match Antonio Valencia (Manchester United)