Manchester United rarely have much trouble with their Wigan peers, and once Javier Hernandez scored the opening goal after 16 minutes there was an air of inevitability about their 13th successive victory in all matches between the clubs.
As in the 5-0 rout here last season, when all the goals came in the second half, the scoreline was hard on Roberto Martinez's side, who are nevertheless becoming used to harsh reality and must face up to the danger of losing their Premier League status after six seasons. All the neat football in the world will not save them if they do not make more of their opportunities.
Hernandez, starting ahead of Dimitar Berbatov, scored not merely against the run of play but against all logic, except that which saysthat teams who do not take their chances will be made to pay. Pushing forward in the last 20 minutes, Wigan were opened up by further goals from Hernandez, Wayne Rooney and the substitute FabioDa Silva.
In other circumstances, Rooney might not have been on the field, after catching James McCarthy with his arm for no evident reason. United may have started badly but it was a little early – only nine minutes had been played – for the England striker to be allowing frustration to get the better of him.
Sir Alex Ferguson has set United a target of 82 points to regain their title and yesterday's three take them to 60, with 11 games to play. They are certainly on target, although the next two games, at Chelsea and Liverpool, will be testing ones. United hope to have Ryan Giggs back shortly after missing three matches, although Rio Ferdinand may not be ready.
Without their captain at centre-half, they came under strong pressure during the early stages of each half, which Wigan could not sustain. The home side, in contrast, are so vulnerable to the swift counter-attacks in which United specialise that this latest defeat by theirnear-neighbours always appearedon the cards.
Amid a flurry of early corners Wigan had made three excellent chances, two of them from United's own errors. Nemanja Vidic redeemed his mistake by blocking Charles N'Zogbia's shot but Paul Scholes was grateful to Edwin Van der Sar for keeping out Victor Moses, whom Scholes had allowed clean through.
When United produced a coherent move of their own it was to bring them the lead. Nani and Rooney worked the ball down the left, from where the Portuguese winger crossed low for Hernandez to jab in cleverly at the near post. It still required another fine save by Van der Sar from McCarthy to keep his team in front, although before half-time Nani crashed a drive against the inside of a post.
Cheered off at the interval for their unstinting effort, Wigan continued to enjoy their share of opportunities without managing to take any. Early in the second half Van der Sar parried Maynor Figueroa's 30-yard drive and Moses hit Hugo Rodallega's cross too high. The inventive Nani often seemed the man most likely to inflict further punishment. He wriggled through on the left, forcing Ali Al Habsi to save low down after a deflection, then changed feet and hit the side-netting before being thwarted, as was Darren Fletcher, by the goalkeeper.
As Wigan tired, though, the scoreline assumed grimly familiar proportions. In the 74th minute Hernandez flicked on Van der Sar's long kick and Rooney played him in neatly for a fine finish. Darron Gibson and Berbatov, the two players left out following the midweek game against Marseille, and the full-back Fabio were then brought on to play a significant part in two more goals.
Gibson's fine pass down the right sent Berbatov clear and he unselfishlyset up Rooney for a tap-in. Two minutes later the adventurous Fabio was on hand at the far post to convert Fletcher's cross.
"The second half was an excellent performance," Ferguson said. Martinez, although upset by the Rooney episode, remained defiant. "The next 10 games are opportunities to get the points we need," he said.
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Man of the match: Nani
Match rating: 7/10