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Manchester United moved level on points with Manchester City at the top of the Premier League as Dimitar Berbatov’s hat-trick propelled the champions to a 5-0 victory against Wigan Athletic at Old Trafford.

Berbatov, who scored the final goal of United’s 5-0 win at Fulham last Wednesday, capitalised on a rare start by claiming the fourth hat-trick of his Old Trafford career.

Further goals Ji-sung Park and Antonio Valencia completed United’s victory and Sir Alex Ferguson’s team have now reduced the gap between themselves and City to goal difference – with City now five ahead.

On Dec 10, prior to United’s 4-1 win against Wolves, Roberto Mancini’s team were five points clear and had a goal advantage of 17.

Although United’s crisis of injury and illness has cost them the services of Nemanja Vidic, Darren Fletcher, Tom Cleverley and Anderson, to name just four, Ferguson still felt able to take the risk of rotating his squad against Wigan.

History suggested that Ferguson’s decision was based on confidence rather than complacency, however. United had won their 12 previous league encounters against Wigan, scoring 37 goals and conceding just four in return, so it would have been a hugely unlucky 13 had Roberto Martinez’s bucked the trend.

With Wayne Rooney on the substitutes’ bench and both Chris Smalling and Phil Jones resting slight injuries, Ferguson was forced to deploy Michael Carrick at centre-half, despite giving the England international the big build-up pre-match by claiming the time had come for him to become the club’s ‘pivotal’ midfielder. Try achieving that while playing at centre-half!

But although Wigan arrived at Old Trafford having held both Chelsea and Liverpool at the DW Stadium in their last two games, there was never any sense of Martinez’s players continuing their run of form by de-railing United’s title bid.

Victor Moses saw a shot blocked by Carrick, while Sammon could have done better with a far post cross which he allowed to sail over his ahead, but those half chances were the only ones that Wigan could point to.

United, meanwhile, were in cruise control from the moment that Park put the champions ahead with his second goal of the season on seven minutes.

Patrice Evra, seemingly unconcerned by the storm emanating from Merseyside following the eight-match suspension laid down to Luis Suarez for racially abusing the French defender, created the goal for Park by jinking past Moses and Antolin Alcaraz before pulling back for the South Korean midfielder to side-foot past Ali Al Habsi from six yards.

To Wigan’s credit, they reacted to the goal by ambitiously seeking a route back into the game and Sammon and Jordi Gomez both gave United defender Jonny Evans worrying moments before Sammon was harshly dismissed by referee Phil Dowd on 39 minutes.

Although Dowd signalled that an elbow had been used, Sammon appeared to do no more than use his left arm to shield the ball from Carrick, who hardly suggested he had been pole-axed.

It was a soft decision and Wigan, in particular, would have every right to feel aggrieved after seeing Rooney escape punishment for a much more bruising clash with James McCarthy at the DW Stadium last season.

Still, having been outplayed with eleven men, Wigan now had to face 51 minutes with ten and the danger for the visitors was an avalanche of United goals.

United could certainly do with another emphatic victory on the back of last Wednesday’s 5-0 rout of Fulham, if only to reduce Manchester City’s commanding advantage in the goal difference stakes.

And within two minutes of Sammon’s dismissal, the floodgates opened for United with Berbatov scoring his first of the game following Javier Hernandez’s flick-on from Darron Gibson’s cross.

Berbatov still had work to do when he received the ball with his back to goal, six yards out, but Alcaraz hardly made life difficult as he allowed the Bulgarian to pivot on the spot before shooting past Al Habsi.

For Wigan manager Martinez, the dilemma was now whether to go for damage limitation on the second-half or the rather more bold and risky tactic of chasing a goal. By replacing holding midfielder Mohamed Diame with striker Franco di Santo, he went for the latter.

Fortune did not favour the brave on this occasion, though. Wigan continued to play open football, but they simply gave United the licence to add to the scoring and Berbatov made it 3-0 on 58 minutes to banish any doubt over where the points were heading.

Berbatov once again made a scoring chance out of a half-chance, but the manner of the his drag-back from Valencia’s pass was stunning, enabling the 30-year-old to beat Al Habsi with a powerful right foot strike.

Wigan were on the ropes and Valencia delivered another blow to his former club by scoring with a low drive from Carrick’s pass on 71 minutes.

United continued to press forward, though, in the knowledge that every goal was one more eating into City’s total.

And the fifth came from the penalty spot on 78 minutes after Alcaraz had fouled Park. Berbatov stepped up and casually rolled the ball past Al Habsi from 12 yards to claim the match-ball and maybe even a route back into the starting line-up on a more regular basis.

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