The clash of the Uniteds, Newcastle versus Manchester, may be being billed as a meeting of titans but no matter how much Sky might hype tonight's match neither is currently the best team in the Premiership. That distinction belongs to Liverpool.
They are a joy to watch at the moment, breath-taking in their range of movement and breadth of attacking options, occasionally wasteful, frequently frustrating, yesterday they looked worthy successors to the great Liverpool sides of the last 30 years and you cannot heap praise higher. The score yesterday was 3-0; it could have been close to double figures.
They overwhelmed Villa and are gaining on the leaders, this win pushing them to within two points of their perpetual rivals at Old Trafford and six behind Newcastle. Whoever wins tonight, they will be fearful of the growing sound of galloping hooves coming from Anfield.
This match was between the third and fourth teams but the gap was so vast yesterday their proximity in the Premiership table seemed barely credible. Villa, boasting the best defence in the Division, were slaughtered, the only mitigation being the absence of Paul McGrath, Mark Draper and Tommy Johnson.
"What pleased me most was the simplicity," Roy Evans, the Liverpool manager, said. "We emphasise teamwork at the club and it was our passing that created the goals. All we can do is keep winning matches and create pressure for the teams ahead of us."
Of tonight's match, Evans added: "The pressure's on both of them now. Both of them to get beat would suit me but that's impossible. Some will say a draw is best for us, but if United beat Newcastle it's another dent in their confidence."
Yesterday the kill was as quick as it was decisive, Liverpool scoring their goals before their visitors had time to take in the atmosphere. Evans has complained that his team tend to play in patches, good one moment, poor the next - but even their brilliant periods this season have not matched their opening seven minutes here.
The first goal arrived after 79 seconds, during which it was difficult to remember a Villa player touching the ball. Liverpool passed and passed, probing and teasing, waiting for a crack to appear. Stan Collymore found it first, swinging in a low ball to John Barnes, who flicked it delightfully for Steve McManaman. The England winger is not always ruthless in his finishing but this time he hit a low volley that beat Mark Bosnich at the far post.
If that goal was excellent, the next was wonderful. Robbie Fowler, a box player and snaffler of chances, can also play a bit further back and he demonstrated that with a lovely flick of his left heel that sold Steve Staunton a dummy so completely the Villa defender could have asked for a seat. The shot that followed was equally decisive, beating Bosnich from 30 yards.
So far the Villa goalkeeper had touched the ball twice, both times to pick the ball out of the net, and his next contact was no happier. Rob Jones released Fowler on the left and from a narrowing angle he should not have scored. His low shot crashed through Bosnich's dive, however, for his 29th goal of the season.
Evans said he feared that his players would take the foot off the pedal, although it was hard to detect any deceleration before half-time. Fowler hit the side-netting and on another occasion had Bosnich leaping to his right to claw a header from the top corner, while Collymore and Barnes blazed narrowly wide.
With the interval the momentum was lost, however, and Villa were allowed to regroup. Gareth Southgate hit a post with a header after 79 minutes and Savo Milosevic had a shot saved by David James, but if anything summed up Villa's day it arrived on the hour. Milosevic crossed, Dwight Yorke eluded John Scales but as he drew his foot back from close range he slipped over.
As Brian Little, the Villa manager, said: "Not much went right for us but it was a good lesson. I've had a few kicks up the backside in football and sometimes it's the best thing for you. We need to learn from this."
Goals: McManaman (2) 1-0; Fowler (5) 2-0; Fowler (8) 3-0.
Liverpool (5-3-2): James; McAteer, M Wright (Redknapp, 31), Scales, Babb, Jones; McManaman, Thomas, Barnes; Collymore (Rush, 81), Fowler. Substitute not used: Warner (gk).
Aston Villa (5-3-2): Bosnich; Charles, Ehiogu, Southgate, Staunton (Joachim, 22), A Wright; Farrelly, Townsend, Scimeca; Milosevic, Yorke. Substitutes not used: Hendrie, Oakes (gk).
Referee: K Cooper (Pontypridd).
Bookings: Aston Villa: Milosevic, Ehiogu.
Man of the match: McAteer.
Attendance: 39,508.Reuse content