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Another year, another title challenge

A couple of hours before his 68th birthday began, Sir Alex Ferguson made his customary trudge along the touchline that separates the dugouts from the tunnel at Old Trafford. It is a well-trodden path for the Manchester United manager. So, too, is the road to the title, a route Ferguson has completed more often than any other. Now he finds himself in a familiar position: poised menacingly just behind the leader. One of Ferguson's mantras has been that he hoped to reach the New Year within a point of the table-toppers. His side are two points adrift as they enter January, but as they may be acquiring momentum at a time when Chelsea threaten to lose theirs, there is an ominous element to their charge. "We have a great chance now," he said.

With Wayne Rooney superlative, albeit against a Wigan side whose negligent marking made them complicit in their own downfall, United delivered a five-goal demolition that was simultaneously elegant and brutal. Their two matches against Roberto Martinez's side have brought an aggregate score of 10-0. Had that result been recorded tonight alone, it would not have been unfair.

It could have been a record-breaking occasion. It was made memorable, but by flair rather than facts. At their best, Manchester United are a thrilling spectacle. They have not been so dominant for the majority of this season - and were not required to be for much of last - but an attacking ethos remains. Seeing it put into practice is a treat.

It is speed and skill accompanied by the levels of drive that have sustained Ferguson into his 36th year in management. United raided forwards incessantly and inventively, marrying determination with a delight at their own talents.

They possessed the potent purpose of Rooney, the gratuitous trickery of Rafael da Silva, the casual class of Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Carrick and the sheer speed of Antonio Valencia. Each scored. It was all too much for Wigan. Matches against them can be good for the goal difference, but not Athletic's, which is the worst in the division.

"I'm very, very pleased," added Ferguson. "I think the first 45 minutes was one of the best this season. We were fluid and the movement and tempo was terrific. We created a lot of chances. It was marvellous stuff. Wayne was absolutely fantastic again, just like on Sunday [at Hull]. The energy he showed in his game and his desire is marvellous."

United ended with an overwhelming sense of superiority. They began with intent. In the space of five minutes, pressure produced everything but a breakthrough. There was a penalty appeal, when Titus Bramble challenged Berbatov; a goal-line clearance, when Paul Scharner denied Nemanja Vidic; the nearest of near misses, when Rooney struck the inside of the far post from an acute angle; and the tamest of misses, when Berbatov beat Chris Kirkland but directed a gentle effort wide of the target.

A second five-minute spell duly brought two goals to compensate. The first had a fitting scorer, Rooney guiding a volley in with expert precision. The South American pair of Valencia and Rafael had combined on the right flank, the Brazilian providing the cross. The right-wing supply line was essential again for the second. Berbatov curled a pass into Valencia's path and the Ecuadorian cut the ball back for Carrick to place it in the far corner. The scoring continued. After weaving his way infield, Rafael spun wonderfully before placing his second United goal past Kirkland. Injured, ill or merely demoralised, he did not return for the second half. Mike Pollitt deputised and was occupied with similar frequency.

He was defeated when Berbatov stabbed in with a minimum of effort after Hendry Thomas, who should have intercepted Valencia's cross, slipped. Rooney subsequently hit the bar before providing a defence-splitting pass for Valencia to nonchalantly flick his shot over Pollitt and score against his old employers.

"We made it very easy," Martinez admitted. "We have to be extremely disappointed. We never played as a team today and we left the back four very, very exposed. We need to correct it and make sure it doesn't happen again." Ferguson's birthday may bring celebration in Manchester; in Wigan, it will be a time for soul-searching.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Wayne Rooney - He is irrepressible at the moment, as the opposing manager accepted. Martinez said: "The whole season we have seen a Rooney with great maturity. He is in that elite group in the Premier League, he is a world-class player and he makes football seem a very easy sport." With 14 league goals already, Rooney is well on course for his best haul of his career. But for the two efforts that hit the woodwork, he would be rather nearer.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: They appear liberated by the return of specialist defenders, their midfield and attack are relishing the security they provide. The right-sided combination of Rafael and Valencia gelled particularly well. Theirs is a partnership with the potential to last for several seasons.

WIGAN VERDICT: A side that has contained four goals or more six times in half a season can safely be described as naive. The highly-rated Maynor Figueroa, often the best of Wigan's defenders, endured a torrid time against his former team-mate Valencia, but manager Martinez has to make his side more resilient if they are to survive.


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