The romantic notion that any Premier League team can beat any other took another pounding here as an initially disjointed Manchester United side, missing 11 players and losing another three on the day, settled down to dismiss Wigan's feeble challenge with four second-half goals. After the champions' recent drought – only Derby had scored fewer goals – this sudden flood carried them to the top of the table, at least until Arsenal attempt to roast Sunderland for Sunday lunch.
Wigan, briefly in first place themselves in August but falling fast ever since, have now played the undisputed big four of English football in 18 games over the past three seasons and lost every one. So much for romance. United's injury problems – they lost Louis Saha in the warm-up, then Nemanja Vidic and John O'Shea within the opening half-an-hour – unexpectedly offered the visitors their best opportunity of holding one of the big boys since their very first match at this level, when Chelsea won so luckily at the JJB Stadium with a goal in the last minute.
Even allowing for the absence in attack of England's rediscovered hero Emile Heskey and the equally influential Antoine Sibierski, they were far too timid.
Tomasz Kuszczak, standing in for Edwin van der Sar, was required to make one real save and at times it was almost comical to watch poor Marcus Bent, the lone striker, weighing up the task of taking on four or five defenders. Once United, in contrast, found a rhythm, they seemed to have attackers all over the pitch, and suddenly looked like the old irresistibles. Paul Scholes, forced to sit deep because Owen Hargreaves and Michael Carrick were among those missing, pulled the strings; Carlos Tevez had possibly his best game for the club so far; Wayne Rooney calmed down to profitable effect after a frustrating first half that brought a yellow card; and Cristiano Ronaldo was up to all his old tricks except the ones that involve collapsing to the turf.
Indeed, he is now suffering like the boy who cried wolf – or in his case "penalty" – being denied legitimate appeals because of his reputation. Early in the game, Michael Brown simply barged him over in the penalty area without punishment.
A goal at that stage might – or might not – have persuaded Wigan to adopt a more positive approach. Instead, they hung on until just after the interval, thanks to Chris Kirkland saving superbly as Tevez's cross deflected off Salomon Olembé's head. Meanwhile, Vidic suffered a facial injury that took him to hospital last night, forcing O'Shea from midfield into defence, only to limp off himself with a dead leg. Attacking options had already been limited by Saha straining a knee before kick-off, but at the start of the second half Wigan were suddenly swept away.
Just after Ryan Giggs had struck the bar, Anderson, one of the substitutes, sent Tevez away to slither past a couple of defenders and then the goalkeeper before scoring. Soon afterwards, the latest in a flurry of corners was taken short by Giggs, whose cross-shot was deflected, then merely parried by Kirkland, allowing Ronaldo to head in.
In the last quarter of an hour came the added satisfaction of two youngsters making a goal apiece. Gerard Pique, playing his second Premier League game, sent Rooney down the left to cross for Ronaldo's tap-in and Danny Simpson, making his debut as O'Shea's replacement, crossed perfectly from the right to set up a rare headed goal by Rooney.Reuse content