Berbatov and Van Persie hit hat-tricks
Manchester United show no signs of relinquishing their undefeated Premier League record after top goalscorer Dimitar Berbatov helped himself to another hat-trick in a comfortable 5-0 victory over Birmingham at Old Trafford.
Sir Alex Ferguson had to deal with defensive problems prior to kick-off, with Chris Smalling and John O'Shea replacing the absent Rio Ferdinand and Rafael da Silva, but it mattered little as United spent the majority of the game on the front foot, as Ryan Giggs and Nani added to Berbatov's three goals.
Birmingham boss Alex McLeish had stated in his pre-match press conference that the pressure was off his players, and they clearly heeded that message as they completely switched off from the first minute to the last. Giggs swung over a second-minute free-kick, which was diverted towards Berbatov, who poked home on the goal-line for the easiest of his 17-goal tally in the league this season.
The Bulgarian had already scored two hat-tricks in the current campaign, and he gave himself an hour to find another one when he added a second after 31 minutes. This time Wayne Rooney was the provider with the slide-rule pass, and Berbatov kept his trademark composure before slotting past United old boy Ben Foster.
The third came from a United old boy of a different kind as Giggs got on the scoresheet, finding the net wonderfully when there appeared to be little danger after Rooney's deep cross. Then came the completion of Berbatov's treble, beautifully made by Rooney and Giggs, before Nani rounded the goalscoring off.
Arsenal remain within two points of United, having played a game more, after they saw off ten-man Wigan 3-0 at Emirates Stadium. Arsene Wenger was afforded the rare luxury of being able to pick something close to his best team as Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas graced the starting line-up, and Wigan had no answer to the Dutch forward.
The Gunners could have been ahead as early as the sixth minute as Theo Walcott tormented his marker down the right, before cutting the ball back for Van Persie, who must have thought he had scored only to see Ali Al Habsi turn the ball over with a world-class save. The Dutchman did not have to wait long for his goal, though, capitalising on Alex Song's through-ball on 20 minutes to score his fifth in as many outings.
A plethora of further chances were missed by Arsenal before Van Persie registered his second of the afternoon, guiding Fabregas' wonderful pass past the woefully exposed Al Habsi. Gary Caldwell, chasing shadows all afternoon, then saw red for a professional foul on Fabregas, who allowed Van Persie to go for the hat-trick from the spot, only to see the Dutchman hammer his penalty wildly over. The hat-trick did arrive five minutes from time, though, as Van Persie grabbed a collector's item with his right foot after Walcott's assist.
Aston Villa striker Darren Bent instantly repaid a slice of his £24 million fee with the winner against title chasers Manchester City. The former Sunderland player broke the deadlock with his first clear-cut opportunity after 18 minutes at Villa Park to give his side a 1-0 win.
City, with their £59 million strike force of Carlos Tevez and Edin Dzeko, dominated for long spells but could not find a way past Villa's rock solid defence in which James Collins and former City centre-back Richard Dunne were outstanding.
Tottenham's slim title hopes are surely over after they drew 1-1 with Newcastle at St James' Park. Harry Redknapp handed a debut to new signing Steven Pienaar ahead of kick-off, with Gareth Bale switching to left-back to cover the absent Benoit Assou-Ekotto.
However, Bale lasted all of 11 minutes on Tyneside due to a back injury, forcing Redknapp to bring on former Newcastle defender Sebastien Bassong in defence. And things went from bad to worse for Spurs when Fabricio Coloccini slammed home in the second half for the Magpies, before Aaron Lennon rescued a late draw that leaves Tottenham ten points behind the leaders.
Kenny Dalglish celebrated the first three points of his second reign as Liverpool manager as Raul Meireles and Fernando Torres inspired the Reds to a 3-0 win at Wolves. Liverpool's defeat to Mick McCarthy's men at Anfield earlier in the season was arguably the result that signalled the end for Dalglish's predecessor, Roy Hodgson, but there was to be no repeat as the visitors won at Molineux for the first time since 1979, when Alan Hansen scored the only goal.
Dalglish raised eyebrows prior to kick-off by restoring the much-maligned Christian Poulsen to his starting line-up at the expense of Jay Spearing, yet it proved a wise decision as the Danish midfielder played a key role in the opening goal, and allowed Meireles to produce a man-of-the-match performance further forward. Splitting the Wolves defence with an excellent slide-rule pass on 36 minutes, Poulsen sparked Liverpool's breakthrough as he released Meireles, who squared for Fernando Torres to slide into an empty net.
Liverpool had led 1-0 at the interval in their last league outing against Everton, only to concede twice in seven second-half minutes. However, this time it was the Reds who found the net again, with Meireles sending a beautiful dipping volley into the top corner of Wayne Hennessey's net from 25 yards.
Wolves switched Matt Jarvis to the left wing and introduced former Liverpool man Adam Hamill as they increased their efforts to get back into the match, but Hamill missed a golden chance to halve the deficit with 14 minutes remaining before Torres killed the game off in injury-time.
At the bottom of the table, West Ham boss Avram Grant was denied a huge victory as Everton stole a 2-2 draw at Goodison Park. Grant was given the backing of his board during the week, and the Hammers almost produced an ideal response before conceding an injury-time equaliser.
Jonathan Spector, who has been something of a revelation for West Ham of late, latched onto the ball at the edge of the box to give Tim Howard no chance for a first-half opener. However, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov rifled home an excellent - if undeserved - equaliser to leave the Hammers in the relegation zone.
Still there was more drama as Frederic Piquionne netted a towering header at the death to seemingly lift his side up to 17th. However, Piquionne received a red card for his troubles after running into the crowd, and Marouane Fellaini made the most of the numerical advantage to snatch a draw for Everton. Fulham are beginning to move in the right direction under Mark Hughes after they beat ten-man Stoke 2-0 at Craven Cottage. Hughes finally has a recognised strike partnership at his disposal in the shape of Andrew Johnson and Moussa Dembele, the latter of whom was making his first start in two months after an ankle injury.
However, it was Mr Reliable Clint Dempsey who opened the scoring, converting at the back post from Johnson's cross. Dempsey then doubled his personal tally in the second half, winning a penalty for which Ryan Shawcross was dismissed before dusting himself down to convert the spot-kick.
Elsewhere, Sunderland claimed revenge against Blackpool, beating Ian Holloway's men 2-1 at Bloomfield Road. The Black Cats missed a hatful of chances in a recent home defeat to Blackpool back in December, but there was to be no repeat as Steve Bruce's side began life without Darren Bent in positive fashion.
Asamoah Gyan carved Blackpool open with a beautiful pass for Kieran Richardson, who guided home his first goal in 42 appearances. And, having not scored since October 2009, Richardson bagged two in one game, beating Richard Kingson again before the break, which proved enough despite Charlie Adam's late penalty.