Happy Birthday Sir Alex Ferguson was the message as his Manchester United players humbled Wigan Athletic at Old Trafford. Goals from Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick, Rafael da Silva, Dimitar Berbatov and the inspirational Antonio Valencia were enough to bring United to within two points of Chelsea at the Premier League summit.
Wigan, so meek in defeat to United by a replica scoreline in August, barely offered a threat as United ripped apart Roberto Martinez’ relegation threatened side. Tottenham Hotspur scored nine past Martinez’ side in November and bar some good fortune United could have run up double figures at Old Trafford last night.
Former Latic Antonio Valencia was the tormentor-in-chief, offering power, pace and constant penetration from the right-wing. And it was the Ecuadorian who came closest to opening to scoring within minutes of the start only to shoot tamely at Chris Kirkland in the visitors’ goal.
Nemanja Vidic, joining Wes Brown, Rafael and Patrice Evra in Ferguson’s strongest back-four in weeks, then had an attempt blocked on the line before Berbatov has a good shout for a penalty turned down by referee Lee Mason.
Rooney, sublime again last night, then hit the post from an impossible angle as United completely overran the visitors in the opening minutes. That Martinez’ side barely put in a tackle hardly helped the Spaniard’s cause – a failing that will surely drag the Latics into a relegation scrap.
That the inevitable opening goal took nearly half an hour to come was the only surprise. Valencia, full of menace all night, worked an opening with Rafael for the Brazilian to feed Rooney at the near post. The Scouser need only touch the ball to score his fifteenth goal of the season.
Goals two and three came before the half-time break to end the match as a contest. In truth it was barely ever one to start with. Berbatov’s beautifully weighted pass from left-to-right found Valencia, who cut back a low pass for Carrick to sweep home. Then Rafael showed brilliant footwork to create an opening on the edge of the area, which the teenager finished with his left foot. The Brazilian’s joy marked only his second goal in a United shirt.
United, hungrier and more determined than in recent weeks, was in no mood to take a breather in the second period. Valencia was again instrumental, skinning Manuel Figueroa on the right flank before finding Berbatov in space inside the box. The Bulgarian, afforded plenty of time, toe-poked home United’s fourth.
By now United’s team was enjoying itself, and some lovely one-touch football from Berbatov, Park Ji-Sung and Rooney resulted in the Scouser crashing a shot against the underside of the bar.
But it was fitting that man-of-the-match Valencia should wrap up proceedings against his former club by latching onto Rooney’s slide-rule pass and chipping home to cap a five-star performance from the home side. It was Valencia’s sixth Premier League goal of the season.
“I think the players realised there were goals there to be scored tonight and they took their chance. That was good because, who knows, goal difference could be important at the end of the season.”
“The really important thing for us is that Antonio scored another goal. That was key for him. He’ll get a lot more.”
“The whole team played well. They all need to play their part, and at the moment they are certainly doing that. It was marvellous stuff tonight.
“Defeats against Aston Villa and Fulham gave us an uncomfortable Christmas, and five defeats in the first half of the season is already one more than we had in the whole of last season. That’s a concern, but the way the league is going it’s not fatal. I just hope that we haven’t damaged ourselves too much.
“There have been a few shock results this season that hopefully might mean the title is taken with fewer points than usual.”
Ferguson, who had confessed to not sleeping over Christmas following those defeats, will find New Year far more comfortable. Matches against Leeds United in the FA Cup and Manchester City in the Carling Cup are exciting for the fans but the Scot will use them to rotate heavily as the Premier League enters its closing months.