United beat Liverpool by 1 goal
Liverpool - Substitute John O'Shea hit a dramatic stoppage-time winner as 10-man Manchester United beat Liverpool 1-0 at Anfield to take a huge step towards securing the Premiership title on Saturday.
Former England midfielder Paul Scholes was shown the red card five minutes from time by referee Martin Atkinson after aiming a punch at Spanish midfielder Xabi Alonso.
But Ireland international O'Shea pounced unmarked in the first minute of stoppage time after a free-kick by Cristiano Ronaldo to give Sir Alex Ferguson's leaders a crunch victory.
United had failed for long periods to produce the form which has taken them top of the summit yet they were denied what looked a certain penalty when Daniel Agger brought down French substitute Louis Saha in the 78th minute.
With Barcelona coming to Merseyside in the Champions League on Tuesday, desperate to overturn Liverpool's 2-1 first-leg lead, Benitez had more reasons than ever to indulge in the kind of rotation that frustrates many of the club's supporters.
He made 99 consecutive team changes up until last October and many feel the early-season tinkering was partly to blame for a lack of consistency that meant his team's Premiership title challenge was over before it had begun, with Liverpool suffering five of their seven league defeats to date before mid-November, all away from home.
But these are not normal circumstances and, with Steven Gerrard having expressed his disgust at the idea of United "virtually" securing the title at Anfield, the Spaniard was in no mood to play into Ferguson's hands.
Xabi Alonso, Momo Sissoko, Dirk Kuyt and Craig Bellamy were all restored to the starting line-up, but there was no place for Javier Mascherano, the Argentinian, in Benitez's 16 man squad.
Jose Reina did not have a save to make in a scrappy first-half although Ronaldo, with 16 Premiership goals to his name already this season, was threatening in spells and blazed his side's best chance before the break over the bar in the 23rd minute after good work by Henrik Larsson.
Liverpool continued to carve out the better chances in a fixture regarded as one of the most fiercely contested in the English calendar.
John Arne Riise, one of the goal heroes in Barcelona in February, almost found the net after letiing fly with another spectacular left-foot effort from 20-yards after good work by the busy Gonzalez in the 27th minute.
United fans had to wait two minutes before half-time for their team's first corner as the leaders struggled to impose themselves and it required a fine save by Edwin van der Sar to keep United level two minutes after the break.
A defence-splitting pass by Kuyt presented Bellamy with the chance of the game but the Welsh international was frustrated by United's Dutch keeper who stuck out a hand to prevent his goal-bound effort from crossing the line.
Moments later Bellamy had an effort ruled out for off-side while Riise went close again during a sustained spell of Liverpool pressure.
United, who had Ryan Giggs making his 700th appearance, were anything but their threatening best and Ferguson's frustration continued when Rooney limped off in the 72nd minute after being injured in a challenge with Carragher.
The game exploded in an amazing finale as Saha was upended by Agger in the 78th minute only for the referee to wave away United's appeals.
Then Scholes was red carded for swinging at (and missing) Alonso before O'Shea had the final say.