An emphatic victory and a second clean sheet on the bounce. If this is Manchester United going through the gears, it won’t matter how the pack responds. Manchester City cracked in three, and what does Roberto Mancini see when he comes into the Etihad changing room? A scoreline at Wigan embellished by the man he tried to sign.
Robin van Persie began this year how he ended the last, taking his total for the season to 19 with two clinical strikes. Mancini believes Van Persie is the difference between United and the rest. The man who bagged him, Sir Alex Ferguson, described him as the complete footballer. He has certainly enhanced the neighbourhood.
As is his habit, one goal was delivered late but on this occasion Van Persie was not deciding matters. That was taken care of earlier by the remarkable Javier Hernandez, who could slice a loaf of bread with either foot, so sharp are his reflexes.
Both his goals were instinctive responses, the first in the 35th minute after Patrice Evra’s shot was blocked by Ali al-Habsi and his second when Van Persie’s free-kick was charged down. With 67 minutes on the clock the game was over. Wigan were game but ultimately outclassed. They threw men forward in the hope of marking the occasion with something, but ended up gifting United a fourth.
Roberto Martinez thought it unfortunate to be playing United at the back of the festive fixtures. “It was very unfair to play the league leaders at the end of four games in 11 days,” The Wigan manager said. “They made a few changes and were able to freshen it up. At 2-0 down we tried to get back in it but we did not have the legs.”
“We played against a very talented side, a top team. Van Persie and Hernandez looked sharper and it was a mismatch at the end. You look at their quality and experience, the combination of Hernandez and Van Persie, they have a strong squad and it will be very difficult to reduce the gap at the top.”
During an opening half-hour of polite fencing, neither team was able to establish any kind of rhythm. Passes went astray, flicks cannoned off shins, crosses were either overhit or hopeful. United briefly ignited through Tom Cleverley and Ryan Giggs, who crossed dangerously to the far post, where Wigan scrambled the ball clear for a corner.
The move signalled a shift in gear and provoked the opening goal. A neat exchange down the left freed Johnny Evans, who broke into the box to feed the advancing Evra. Al-Habsi did well to block Evra’s shot but when the ball fell to Hernandez, there could be only one outcome and the chance was duly snaffled.
Three minutes before the break United doubled their advantage. James McArthur and Maynor Figueroa somehow managed to tackle each other, allowing Hernandez to sprint clear down the right. His cross left Van Persie with plenty to do but he did it nonetheless, switching the ball brilliantly from left foot to right before curling it into the net.
Wigan were fortunate not to fall further behind immediately after the restart when a mistake by Ivan Ramis allowed Giggs to set Hernandez free. The Mexican’s lethal touch surprisingly deserted him and his shot skewed wide of the post. It was the start of a sustained phase of imperious attacking that left Wigan bandy-legged. The ball pinged about the DW at lightning pace, threatening all kinds of doom, yet it was the home side who had the ball in the net next.
A quick counter from Shaun Maloney led to a free-kick on the half-way line. The ball was played into Franco Di Santo, whose cross was converted brilliantly by Arouna Koné, but illegally according to the linesman, who flagged for offside. The chance gone, United resumed the onslaught.
It was all Gary Caldwell could do to stick out a foot to stop Rafael rampaging through on goal. Van Persie’s resulting free-kick was charged down by the wall into the path of Hernandez. Few react as quickly as this kid. Al-Habsi dived, as he is compelled to do, but did not stand a chance.
Spiritedly, Wigan removed skipper Caldwell and threw men forward. Chris Smalling was booked for bringing down Koné to halt a typically robust charge. The United substitute was definitely at fault, but there are men in this town who can drag three blokes in a tackle and still stay on their feet, unlike Koné. Perhaps it’s something to do with the shape of the ball.
With three minutes to go, a mistake by Boyce allowed substitute Danny Welbeck to square for Van Persie, who gratefully clipped his second and United’s fourth. Ferguson was naturally chuffed to usher in 2013 with a bang and was full of praise for his strikers.
“We knew we were getting a top player who would make a difference to the team,” said Ferguson about Van Persie. “That is why we went for him. Robin is a completely rounded footballer. He has great international experience, he’s played for Arsenal for seven years and he came to us at the very peak of his career.
“His ability to make and take goals is fantastic. His play for his first goal was absolutely magnificent, his turn, his balance, no drawback, just side footed it in. It was a really good goal.”
Hernandez was praised similarly effusively and Ferguson added: “Since Javier came, he has shown he is a penalty-box player. He is tremendous. He latches onto things. He is brilliant.”