Manchester United opened up a four-point gap on Arsenal and a startling 15-point one on Chelsea with the most predictable of wins at Wigan, who have now played 13 games against Sir Alex Ferguson's side since 2005 and lost every time. Even with one eye on their trip to Chelsea on Tuesday United still managed their usual landslide – they have now scored 41 goals against these most obliging of opponents – though in fairness, Wigan only let their heads drop in the last 10 minutes.
Roberto Martínez's players gave a good account of themselves in the first half and could consider themselves slightly unlucky to be trailing by a single goal at the break, yet this was only the first of three successive away games for United in the coming week and, though they used it sparingly, the visitors always had an edge in quality that was likely to tell. With Dimitar Berbatov rested, Javier Hernández stepped up with a couple of neat finishes, and though Wayne Rooney was booed throughout after catching James McCarthy with a needless elbow early on, the striker, still clearly out of sorts, set up his side's first two goals and scored the third.
"We didn't take our chances and Manchester United punish you for that," Martínez said. "It might have been a different matter had they gone down to 10 men. The referee told me at half-time that Rooney had just clipped James and it did not warrant a red card, but if you see a replay it is clearly an elbow and Rooney was very fortunate to escape a red card. The referee must have seen it because he gave a free-kick. Had one of my players done that I'm not sure he would have been so lucky."
Ferguson played down the incident, anticipating pressure being put on the FA to take retrospective action. "It was next to nothing," the United manager said. "Mark Clattenburg [the referee] saw it and said it was an accident."
Ferguson also admitted that Wigan were all over United for the first 20 minutes, although the opening goal perfectly illustrated the difference between the two sides. Not many wingers other than Nani would have even caught Rooney's return pass up the left wing, but once he reached the pass Nani supplied a low cross that Hernández alertly read, nipping in front of Ali al-Habsi at the near post to dink the ball past the goalkeeper from a narrow angle.
One brief moment of class and United were on their way. "It was a terrific finish, but that's what he's good at," Ferguson said. "His percentage is very high."
Wigan had a much clearer opportunity to open the scoring four minutes earlier, when a mistake by Paul Scholes presented Victor Moses with a one-on-one chance to beat Edwin van der Sar. He could not take it. While the United goalkeeper stood tall to make a decent save, the finish could have been more convincing.
The home side could also have equalised immediately after United went in front; Van der Sar rushing from his line to smother a shot from McCarthy when a goal seemed certain from Hugo Rodallega's clever backheel. So while the home side could conceivably have been 2-1 down at half-time they could also have turned round two goals up. On one of United's isolated excursions upfield Nani rattled Al-Habsi's post after taking an astute pass from Rooney.
Maynor Figueroa brought another save from Van der Sar with a powerful 30-yard drive in the second half, though for the most part Wigan were less incisive than they had been in the first. While there was only one goal in it there was still hope of an upset, but after Rooney and Darren Fletcher had missed opportunities Hernández's second goal made the game safe a quarter of an hour from time. The Mexican knocked a long clearance into Rooney's path then just managed to stay onside to accept a well-timed return, making short work of sliding a low shot decisively beyond Al-Habsi. Moses, by now sitting on the Wigan bench, could only look on with resignation.
With the game safe United began to make substitutions, and found fresh legs were all they needed to double their lead. First Darron Gibson found Berbatov in space for the Bulgarian to leave Rooney a tap-in, then Fábio da Silva came on for the last five minutes and scored his first goal for the club with virtually his first touch, collecting a cross at the far post and beating Al-Habsi with a composed finish.
"The final score was not a true reflection of the game," Martínez lamented, not for the first time this season. The table gives a true reflection of Wigan's plight. With Wolves already out of the bottom three after beating Blackpool, a West Ham win against Liverpool would leave the Latics looking up at everyone else.
PAUL FARRINGTON, Wiganer.net Well you can't take away from United the way in which they put away their chances, yet before they'd even scored we had at least three or four genuine chances. We really needed to put one of them away, but as soon as United took the lead they kicked on. There was plenty of fight from the team in the first 20 minutes – we showed them no respect and went at them, but the second goal sparked the inevitable. Legs got weary and we weren't chasing as hard. It seems to be 4-0 every year. We're in a particular run of games that adds to the pressure but you can't read too much into a 4-0 defeat by United.
The fan's player ratings Habsi 6; Gohouri 5, G Caldwell 6, Alcaraz 5, Figueroa 7; Watson 6 (Gómez 89 n/a), N'Zogbia 6 (McArthur 89 n/a), Diamé 6, McCarthy 6, Moses 5 (Di Santo 64 5); Rodallega 5
SHAUN O'DONNELL, Observer reader The result flattered us a little: in the first half we seemed to struggle, getting bogged down in midfield and getting done on the flanks a couple of times and if Moses had a bit more about him we might have been punished. But in the second half United were much more attack-minded, and the second goal opened the floodgates, and Wigan pretty much gave up. Smalling had a good day, and showed his maturity, though Carrick seems to have lost confidence and the fans were moaning at him a bit. But Hernández got two more good goals – he's just brilliant to have as back-up. He could be a world-beater.
The fan's player ratings Van der Sar 8; O'Shea 7, Smalling 8, Vidic 7, Evra 7; Fletcher 6, Carrick 6, Scholes 6 (Gibson 77 7), Nani 8 (Fábio 85 n/a); Hernández 9 (Berbatov 76 7), Rooney 7
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