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Red half in full flight

THE Manchester City players who are filmed icing a "1-6" scoreline onto a Christmas cake for the club's seasonal video knew last night just how far they are from applying the finishing touches to the title campaign.

A month ago they travelled to Anfield with the potential to go seven points clear and extend their goal difference on the champions to beyond 14.

Now a mere five goals divide the two sides who will surely contest the title and Alex Ferguson can mark his 70th birthday on New Year's Eve by going back to the top by picking up points at home to Blackburn, 24 hours before City play at Sunderland.

"It's a long season," Ferguson said last night after referee Phil Dowd's miserably bad decision to reduce Wigan Athletic to 10 men assisted Manchester United to maintain their extraordinarily profitable return against the club -- 46 goals in 14 games now.

"If we are top of the league or joint-top with City on New Year's Day I will be happy."

United, who have won eight and drawn one of their nine Premier League games since the October derby Ferguson described as his worst day at Old Trafford, halved City's superior goal difference in the course of one afternoon and 16 goals in four league fixtures suggests that early Champions League elimination has shaken them from their torpor.

Roberto Mancini, the City manager, got his defence in last night, with bitter complaints about fixture congestion, but Ferguson barely had a defence at all.

Sickness to Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, and Rio Ferdinand's back injury reduced him to fielding Antonio Valencia at right-back, Michael Carrick at centre-half and -- after a calf injury to Jonny Evans -- Patrice Evra in central defence for the second half.

Wigan, who have shipped 19 goals, and scored once, in six Premier League visits to Old Trafford, required only eight minutes to make it a nice round 20. Evra staggered out of a fog of poor form to bisect Victor Moses and Antolin Alcaraz and square for Park Ji-sung , who angled himself to whip a shot past Ali al-Habsi.


But the pivotal moment was Dowd's dismissal of Conor Sammon, at a time when Moses and Jordi Gomez were threatening Evans and Wigan were revealing how they had managed consecutive draws with Chelsea and Liverpool before Christmas.

The striker extended a hand to hold off Carrick, as the two went up for a high ball together, but there was no venom.

Even Ferguson admitted the Dubliner had been unfortunate. "He is a big, aggressive lad and he throws his body around a lot," he said.

"He caught Michael across the face but it's not intentional."

After three matches against United which have seen three of his players dismissed and Wayne Rooney's elbow on James McCarthy go undetected, it was reasonable that Roberto Martinez dispensed with his usual equanimity.

"The red card is a shocking decision," the Wigan manager said.

"There's nothing malicious - not even a clear contact.

"The two are just fighting for that position. If you want to apply red cards with that standard then do it and you end up with six players each.

"I want to believe that you are going to get seen in the same way as Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United players."

Berbatov's actions were certainly not seen in the same way when he jostled with his arms to hold off Alcaraz, after the defender was flummoxed by Darron Gibson's low, dangerous cross from the right, and pivoted around to score.

Ferguson, whose injury list now numbers 11, sent on Ezekiel Fryers for Evans and shifted Evra to centre-half, but United still set about City's goal difference with an imperious ease.

Valencia was the architect, capitalising on the space left by a back-pedalling David Jones, to cross for Berbatov, who span around Gary Caldwell to put the ball under Habsi's body.

Then the Ecuadorean sized up a ball Carrick laid into his path to fire home with power and elegance from 12 yards.

Alcaraz tripped Park with a crude challenge, which appeared to be millimetres inside the area, for the penalty which delivered Berbatov his fourth United hat-trick.

Ferguson's quandaries for his 71st year will include goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard, who has not conceded in his four Premier League starts this season, who should be allowed to extend his run of starts beyond the last two games.

"I think I said some weeks ago someone is going to suffer," Ferguson said. "We are really hitting good form now. There's a real goal threat from us from all departments."

His side are an oppressive presence on City's shoulder, wanting to apply icing on a 20th title more desperately than ever, after that 1-6 defeat.