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Hat-trick hero Berbatov piles pressure on noisy neighbours

For all the annoyance Alex Ferguson may have felt at Manchester City topping the Premier League on Christmas Day, the flipside is the prospect of toasting his 70th birthday on New Year's Eve with Manchester United looking down on the 'noisy neighbours' once again.

A 5-0 St Stephen's Day rout of Wigan, five days after an equally emphatic victory at Fulham, ensures that United will claim top spot on New Year's Eve if they avoid defeat at home to Blackburn on Saturday lunchtime.

It required a Dimitar Berbatov hat-trick and a questionable first-half red card for Wigan forward Conor Sammon to propel United to the points but, with City surprisingly held at West Brom, the pendulum in the title race now appears to have swung back in the direction of Old Trafford.

Prior to their 4-1 win over Wolves at Old Trafford on December 10, United trailed City by five points, with Roberto Mancini's team holding a seemingly formidable 17-goal advantage -- helped in no small way by their 6-1 derby win in October -- over their rivals.

But despite being in the midst of an injury and illness crisis that has cost United the services of Nemanja Vidic, Darren Fletcher, Tom Cleverley and Anderson, to name just four, Ferguson's players have somehow won eight and drawn one of their nine league games since the derby humiliation against City two months ago.

Sixteen goals in four league games have also allowed United to take bitesize chunks out of City's goal difference and the target now is to return to the Premier League summit on Saturday, 24 hours before City face Sunderland away.

Despite United's personnel problems, which resulted in Michael Carrick starting at centre-half, Wigan's woeful record against the champions -- 37 goals conceded in 12 successive defeats -- suggested that Ferguson's players were facing the perfect opponents to enhance their goal tally.

Wigan might have arrived at Old Trafford having held both Chelsea and Liverpool at the DW Stadium in their last two games, but there was never any sense of Martinez's players continuing their run of form by derailing United's title bid.

United were in cruise control from the moment Ji-sung Park put them ahead with his second goal of the season on seven minutes.

Patrice Evra created the goal for Park by jinking past Victor Moses and Antolin Alcaraz before pulling back for the South Korean midfielder to sidefoot 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 former UCD man Sammon and Jordi Gomez both gave United defender Jonny Evans worrying moments before Sammon was 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.

Still, having been outplayed with 11 men, Wigan now had to face 51 minutes with 10 and the danger for the visitors was an avalanche of United goals.

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 was brushed aside as he attempted to dispossess the Bulgarian, who turned the Paraguayan before scoring from close range.

For Martinez, the dilemma was now whether to go for damage limitation or the rather more risky tactic or 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 here, 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 his drag-back from Antonio 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, who appeared to have been tripped outside the 18-yard box.

Berbatov, yet to be offered a new contract to replace the final six months of his current deal, casually rolled the ball home to make it 5-0. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent