This may have been the afternoon the Manchester United juggernaut finally moved into high gear. Their unbeaten run in the Premier League this season is now 22, an undefeated sequence in the competition that actually stretches back to last April, when Chelsea came to Old Trafford and departed with a win that swung last year's championship towards west London.
Birmingham City arrived with hopes of being the crew to finally halt Alex Ferguson's gang but within a minute of kick-off a big hole was punched in these pretensions by opponents who became better and better as the afternoon aged.
Ryan Giggs, who began the match in rampaging mode and would finish off a magnificent move just before the break, floated in a corner that a slumbering Birmingham defence allowed John O'Shea to back-flick into the danger area. David Murphy, the City left-back, stood on the goal-line as Dimitar Berbatov wandered away to secure the simplest of finishes that began a memorable hat-trick.
Too much space was the charge for this goal and the four that followed. After the half hour an awful mistake from Roger Johnson near half-way saw the defender pass straight to Anderson. The midfielder touched the ball to Wayne Rooney, who advanced towards a back-pedalling visiting defence, before moving possession on to Berbatov.
From an inside-left berth the 29-year-old Bulgarian was allowed to motor unmolested into the area and unload a shot that beat a despairing Ben Foster. It was his 17th goal this season.
United's third was quite brilliant. Berbatov, sliding along the grass, somehow managed to intercept a David Bentley pass. He laid the ball off to Rooney, who returned it with a cleverly clipped back-heel before continuing his run. When he received again from Berbatov, Rooney glanced up and, from wide right, produced a delivery that bent sweetly across Birmingham's area to find Giggs, who smashed the ball home.
This last goal, understandably, had Ferguson, purring. "The third was exciting -- the interchange between the players," he said. "It was a killer goal, coming right on half-time."
Rooney's curious season had its latest installment moments after the second half had begun. While the 24-year-old continues to be one of United's baton wavers, he has still scored only once from open play. And when Nani again got behind Birmingham's defence and flipped over a delivery that dropped precisely on Rooney's head, he somehow pushed his attempted finish wide of a gaping goal.
"We hope the goals come for Rooney, he deserves it," said Ferguson. "He played some great football and worked his socks off. He showed fantastic control from Edwin Van der Sar's ball that came out the clouds to set up Giggs, in the build-up for the fourth goal."
This was after the break when Berbatov finished for a third that again illustrated how lethal an assassin for United he is -- in a campaign that could close in May with he and his colleagues matching the undefeated Arsenal 'Invincibles' of 2003/4. When Giggs played him in, the left-foot finish that secured Berbatov's third hat-trick of the season was banged emphatically beyond Foster. Nani then made it five 14 minutes from time.
"It was a really good team performance," Ferguson said. "We were helped by an early goal. They had to open up. We were able to take Patrice [Evra] off and give him a break, though Michael [Carrick] has a sore one." The latter player went off after a first-half challenge by Alexander Hleb.
"Berbatov was marvellous," Ferguson added. "We were a bit wasteful at times but we can't complain with the scoreline. It helps the goal difference. We have some tough games ahead but hopefully the players can grasp the nettle."
Whether Rio Ferdinand, who missed this game with a groin problem, can face Blackpool on Tuesday will be decided tomorrow. Alex McLeish was left lamenting a slipshod performance by his team. "We were apprehensive," he said. Other opponents of United will surely feel the same this season.
Sunday Indo Sport