Manchester United 4 Wigan Athletic 0: Rooney on rampage as United display their old-time artistry and authority

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The Independent Football

In the mind of Sir Alex Ferguson the press will always hate Manchester United but last night the Manchester United who evoke the adoration of their supporters finally showed up at Old Trafford to alleviate the despondency and paranoia that have enveloped the club in recent days.

It was just like old times as United ruthlessly dismantled Wigan Athletic to return to second in the Premiership, although the nine-point gap that Chelsea still enjoy at the top of the table offers a pointed reminder that these are not old times for Ferguson. The goals flowed freely, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs brought renewed invention to the United midfield before departing to standing ovations, Wayne Rooney was denied a hat-trick in a manner that would have delighted Roy Keane and even the name of Rio Ferdinand rang around the stadium as Ferguson's team recorded their most emphatic home victory of the season.

This was a performance that may tempt the Scot to spend more than 74 seconds on his next press conference, and one that revealed the merits of encouraging a siege mentality among a squad lacking in self-belief. "It has been a bad week for the football club," admitted the United manager, "but the only way you can get out of bad times is by sticking together and sticking to your principles."

There has been precious little evidence of Ferguson's attacking principles at Old Trafford lately, with only 10 League victories recorded on home soil in 2005, but here was a performance that met the club's exuberant expectations. It also illustrated why United attract such fierce criticism when their expensively assembled squad fail to realise those standards. "The bar has been raised in this division so quickly," added Ferguson. "A few years ago we could have taken Ferdinand, Giggs and Scholes off as we did tonight and kept our level but not now, and that allowed Wigan to finish the last 15 minutes as the better team. But we were superb for 20 minutes in the second half and there was a confidence and swagger about us after Wayne had given us a second goal."

Ferguson now finds himself in the uncomfortable position of wishing Arsène Wenger well when Arsenal host Chelsea on Sunday, though it will take a consistent dip at Stamford Bridge and upsurge at Old Trafford truly to revive his prospects of a title challenge.

Paul Jewell, in his 200th League game as Wigan manager, employed a three-man attack in the hope of prospering from United's anxiety and was almost rewarded as Henri Camara twice went close in the opening minutes, but he was indebted to goalkeeper Mike Pollitt for keeping the contest alive as the ageing legs in the Latics' defence offered United a weakness they sought to exploit at every opportunity. Scholes, Rooney, Darren Fletcher and Ruud Van Nistelrooy were all denied by Pollitt and there was an inevitability about United's breakthrough in the 30th minute.

But the identity of the goalscorer was a shock. Rio Ferdinand was an Elland Road employee the last time he registered his name on a scoresheet, for England against Denmark in the 2002 World Cup, but his three-year wait ended when he towered above Pascal Chimbonda to convert Ryan Giggs' corner. "The fans and the lads in training have been getting on to me about not scoring and it has been bothering me," admitted the England centre-half.

The goal was identical to the one Wigan conceded to John Terry on Saturday and Jewell's anger increased five minutes later when Rooney was allowed to ride a challenge from Matt Jackson, while prostrate on the floor, and step inside Leighton Baines before sweeping a left-foot finish inside Pollitt's near post. In the 52nd minute Rooney turned a glorious chance on to the crossbar but, unperturbed, he made amends with an exquisite finish, latching on to Van Nistelrooy's threaded pass and waiting for Pollitt to commit before lifting a nonchalant chip into the Stretford End goal.

The striker was denied his hat-trick when Van Nistelrooy refused to pass responsibility for the 70th-minute penalty he stroked wide of Pollitt. "He's the penalty taker so he was right not to give it to me," said Rooney, though his face betrayed the only sense of disappointment felt by United last night.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand (Bardsley, 65), Brown, O'Shea; Fletcher, Scholes (Park, 74), Smith, Giggs (Ronaldo, 70); Rooney, Van Nistelrooy. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Saha.

Wigan Athletic (4-3-3): Pollitt; Chimbonda, Henchoz, Jackson, Baines; Bullard, Skoko (Kavanagh, h-t), Mahon (McCulloch, 75); Camara, Roberts, Connolly. Substitutes not used: Walsh (gk), Taylor, Teale.

Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).