Masterful Rooney sets United up for Real test
Man Utd 4 Norwich 0
Real Madrid loom large but Manchester United are still looking after business at home. It took a while to come together but when it did Norwich were swept away by a red tide masterminded by Wayne Rooney.
Alex Ferguson, United's manager, can now direct his full attention to Tuesday's monumental Champions League showdown with Spanish royalty at Old Trafford knowing he has an iron grip on the Premier League title race.
Shinji Kagawa claimed his first hat-trick for United, with two nimble assists from Rooney, who completed the rout with a majestic finish.
Three goals came in the final 15 minutes as United finally underlined the gulf in class. It also reinforced the gap at the top of the Premier League, United reopening a 15-point lead over Manchester City.
There were other reasons for Ferguson to be cheerful: Robin van Persie showed no ill-effects from last weekend's hip injury, Michael Carrick was again a controlling influence in his midfield driving seat and United's increasingly concrete defence returned their fourth successive league clean sheet.
"We showed a good spirit in our game, we were determined, worked hard and didn't think about what's going to happen on Tuesday," said Ferguson.
The United manager also praised Kagawa, £12m Japanese import from Borussia Dortmund last summer, who became the first Asian player to score a Premier League hat-trick. "Great intelligence on his first one, his second goal was so composed and the third one was really well executed."
Rooney was industrious all game but hit a different plane in the final 15 minutes. "He's missed a few games but he worked hard, scored a goal and that's how we need him.''
Ryan Giggs, United's evergreen grandmaster, was given the day off, leaving his 1,000th senior appearance to garnish Tuesday's glittering night. Flu victim Rio Ferdinand was also omitted while the likes of Rafael, Nani and Ashley Young had a watching brief from the substitutes' bench.
But there is still a title to be won, and the majority of the team who started yesterday can expect to see action against the Spanish giants.
Norwich were the last side to overcome Ferguson's men, 16 games ago, but even given United's Champions League distractions this always seemed a step too far for a side who have won only once away from home in the league this term. Sure enough, they were quickly penned in their own half, with Grant Holt a lone and underused outlet up front.
They did, through a mix of hard graft, in-depth defending and their hosts' failure to find a finishing touch, survive until the end of the first half, though only the bravery of goalkeeper Mark Bunn, who hurtled from his line to smother the ball at Van Persie's feet after a fine pass from Rooney, prevented them falling behind earlier on.
It was only a matter of when United opened the scoring, and the moment arrived as the clock ticked into first-half added time. Antonio Valencia's cross reached Van Persie, whose touch helped the ball on to Kagawa, who finished stylishly from 10 yards.
There was little for Old Trafford to get agitated about, but seconds before half time Patrice Evra was left writhing after a heavy challenge from Robert Snodgrass. Evra, whose duties on Tuesday will include dealing with the fearsome threat of Real's Cristiano Ronaldo, was left clutching his left ankle while referee Neil Swarbrick brandished a yellow card at Snodgrass. United's ire was calmed, however, as Evra continued for the remainder of the game.
Norwich deserve credit for some adventure, however, discomforting United more than once after the interval. The home side had a major let-off on 62 minutes when Holt's knock-down left Russell Martin with a gaping target only for the visitor to blaze over.
Restless Old Trafford wanted the comfort of a second goal but Rooney screwed a low shot wide. Never mind. With the England striker around there is always the capacity for a moment of match-settling magic, and Rooney duly delivered in the 76th minute.
Bursting down the right flank, he could have drilled a shot goalwards but instead checked inside Sebastien Bassong and slid the perfect pass for Kagawa, who rolled the ball calmly beyond Bunn. The match won, United turned on the style.
Rooney and substitute Danny Welbeck, who had replaced Van Persie midway through the second half, cued up Kagawa to complete his hat-trick. Rooney, fittingly, had the last word when the provider turned deliverer in the 90th minute with a coruscating drive from outside the penalty area.
Now for Real Madrid.