"Rafa's cracking up." Sir Alex Ferguson's sentiments, gratefully seized upon as a new anthem by the Old Trafford crowd last night and perhaps presciently, bearing in mind how long it took Manchester United to continue their inexorable journey towards Liverpool's fragile ascendant position.
The goal took 52 seconds, to be precise, and though United hardly laid waste to Wigan's goal during a game in which Steve Bruce's side demonstrated why they – and not Chelsea – are the ones who have just won six from seven, the champions are currently inexorable, grinding out wins and keeping heads when all around them are losing theirs. United have also not conceded in 13 hours and two minutes of domestic football now – a club record – and the prospect of them reeling in Benitez's side by 5pm on Saturday looks highly likely, even though Wayne Rooney, who had scored and departed the field inside seven minutes, will not play a part. Rooney's hamstring injury will keep him out for three weeks.
There were actually signs of ill health in the stadium all night: the Old Trafford announcer was substituted after his croaking attempts to introduce Cristiano Ronaldo as Fifa's World Player of the Year. Carlos Tevez and stand-in central defender Jonny Evans also took knocks: Ferguson's squad is looking war weary at present.
But a war effort was required against a Wigan Ferguson later described as "the best side to have played here this season by far" – and that was not another sly dig at Luiz Felipe Scolari. The build-up might not have augured well for them – the club repulsing a £10m bid from Tottenham for his prized midfielder Wilson Palacios – but they grew in stature as the night drew on and United melted away. Antonio Valencia, the night's outstanding performer and another Bruce may struggle to keep, won his battle against John O'Shea. Nemanja Vidic's headed clearance from under the bar from one of fully a dozen of the Ecuadorian's crosses was part of a mighty and necessary performance from the Serb.
Rooney's departure provided one of the rare opportunities Tevez so covets but it was one he again could not take. How badly the Argentine needed a good first touch on an O'Shea header which sailed over Wigan's midfield 18 minutes after taking the field. But Tevez's heavy control took the ball out of his reach when he might have rounded Chris Kirkland to score. His manager seems to be willing him to prosper too: he was on the pitch with the striker after the teams re-emerged from the interval, issuing instructions, an arm around him. But tirelessness alone does not light up games and Tevez's propensity to dive at the first opportunity did not help either.
Dimitar Berbatov was more inconspicuous but while he might feature less, he certainly offers more. It was his masterful pass across to Ronaldo that allowed the Portuguese to mesmerise Maynor Figueroa, then cross for Rooney who was left free to side-foot home as Paul Scharner abandoned his station. An elegant curled effort from the outside of Berbatov's boot, just wide, was also the best it got for United after the break.
By then, Bruce's side looked like they might steal his old boss' thunder. Emile Heskey had good grounds for his penalty shout after Vidic appeared to bring him to ground with a left arm in the penalty area. Valencia might also have helped Benitez's mental health had he kept his head after Evans's rushed challenge left the winger running into the United box. He fired over.
"If I was ever going to get something from coming back it was today," lamented Bruce, after his 12th managerial visit here without a win. "They showed a bit of resilience and had a go. I detected it in training they were looking forward to it. Some of them hadn't played here and they looked around and fancied it. But I think that's the quickest goal in Sir Alex's tenure here."
Meanwhile, United, two points behind Liverpool with a game in hand, march on. "You don't mind when you're top, its being top which is the place to be," Ferguson said. "Hopefully we can do that by Saturday night."
Goals: Rooney (1) 1-0.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): Van der Sar; Rafael, Vidic, Evans, O'Shea; Carrick, Scholes (Fletcher, 85); Ronaldo, Rooney (Tevez, 8), Nani (Anderson, 59); Berbatov. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Neville, Park, Welbeck.
Wigan Athletic (4-4-2): Kirkland; Melchiot, Scharner, Bramble, Figueroa; Valencia, Cattermole (Kapo, 88), Palacios, Taylor (De Ridder, 81); Zaki (Camara, 75), Heskey. Substitutes not used: Kingson (gk), Edman, Brown, Boyce.
Referee: S Bennett (Kent).
Bookings: Wigan Athletic: Bramble, Scharner, Zaki.
Man of the match: Scholes.
Attendance: 73,917.Reuse content