Dimitar Berbatov recorded a hat trick in only his league second start of the season as Manchester United routed visiting Wigan Athletic, 5-0, pulling even with rival Manchester City at the top of the Barclays Premier League.
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City remain just in front of United on goal difference, but even that lead was cut to five by United’s second successive five-goal triumph.
The final at Old Trafford came after some tough luck for Wigan, whose chances disappeared once forward Conor Sammon was sent off for catching Michael Carrick with his elbow just before halftime.
Already leading through Park Ji-sung’s early goal, United took advantage of Wigan’s misfortune.
Berbatov doubled their lead before the break then scored twice in the second half, bringing back memories of his form in the first half of last season, when he claimed three man of the match awards on his way to the league’s lead in goals.
On this occasion, he owed the honor to Wayne Rooney, Manchester United’s normal penalty kick-taker who stepped aside to let him take a late penalty after Park had been fouled by Antolin Alcaraz.
The excellent Antonio Valencia was also on target to ensure manager Alex Ferguson will be handed the perfect 70th birthday present of a year-end place on top of the league should United defaeat Blackburn on New Year’s Eve.
Manchester City are not in action until 24 hours later.
At the match’s onset, the day did not look to be easy for the hosts, with Manchester United forced to start midfielders Valencia and Michael Carrick in defense. But if there was one opponent against whom Manchester United could afford to take chances, it was Wigan. The Latics had not managed so much as a draw in 13 previous meetings between the sides, with a combined 16-0 score from their past four encounters.
United opened the scoring early as Nani slalomed his way into the Wigan box, then picked out Park Ji-sung with a neat cut-back. The South Korean had enough space to pick his spot, into the top right corner, well out of goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi’s reach.
United continued to create chances at regular intervals, with Nani, Berbatov and Darron Gibson all trying their luck.
However, Wigan were not content to play the meek visitors. With Victor Moses building on recent impressive performances and Ronnie Stam exploiting the hosts’ lack of an orthodox left-sided midfield player, Wigan initially created just as many chances as their hosts. Sammon wasted the best, turning onto David Jones’ pass but drilling a shot straight at goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard.
But Sammon’s day quickly got much worse, and any chance Wigan had disappeared with his controversial red card.
There is no doubt Sammon’s arm did end up in Carrick’s face, offering referee Phil Dowd the opportunity to send him off. However, it did appear the Wigan man was attempting to use it as a barrier to shield a bouncing ball from his opponent. There was no malice and very little force behind the action, and Latics chief Roberto Martinez was not on his own in believing his side had been harshly treated.
And, as good sides do, United quickly exploited the situation, getting help from an unlikely source.
Had injury not struck him down in August, midfielder Darren Gibson might well have moved on in the summer. As it was, Ferguson was probably glad to have him available for this one.
Near halftime, the Irishman delivered a teasing cross from the right flank, which ended up with Berbatov. United’s record signing took some time to get the ball under control. However, he had the strength to hold off defender Antolin Alcaraz to drill a shot past Al Habsi for United’s second goal.
The departure of Jonny Evans at halftime led to left back Patrice Evra moving into central defense, though he was limping too not long afterwards, something that proved to be a false alarm.
On the opposite flank, Valencia was having a quietly effective game, with his prodding second half pass giving Berbatov enough space and time to smash his shot beyond Al Habsi for United’s third goal.
Valencia’s excellent performance continued when he drilled his first Premier League goal of the season into the bottom left corner, making it 4-0.
Then, after Park was chopped down in the box by Alcaraz, Berbatov finished off his hat trick, placing his penalty kick in the right half of goal to finish the scoring.