Even more than a racehorse or a case of Chateau Petrus, this is the kind of birthday present Sir Alex Ferguson would have appreciated, a demonstration that as the great helmsman prepares for his fourth decade at Old Trafford, his sides are still capable of ruthlessly beautiful displays.
Ferguson, who turns 68 today, remarked a month ago that if Manchester United reached the new year a point or so adrift of the leaders, they would have a "great chance" of a fourth successive championship. The gap this morning is two. And after what the United manager described as an "uncomfortable Christmas" a hard-fought victory at Hull and this emphatic dismissal of Wigan, both inspired by Wayne Rooney, Chelsea no longer have a significant advantage in goal difference.
Roberto Martinez took Ferguson to lunch as part of a getting-to-know-you exercise but since his Wigan team has now beaten Chelsea and conceded 10 to the champions, he has done United enough favours.
The away section at Old Trafford was barely half full, which when you consider that Wigan is part of Greater Manchester showed a remarkable lack of faith in their own team. However, given the fact that Wigan had never earned so much as a point against United those who chose to save their money knew what they were doing.
Martinez may have fielded two defensive midfielders to protect his back four but an utter lack of coordination wrecked any plans of keeping Rooney or United at bay. "Today was not about tactics or footballing philosophies, it was about doing your job as a player," said the Wigan manager. "We never showed even the basis of being a team, it was full of individual, selfish performances."
None was more individual or selfish than Charles N'Zogbia, whom Joe Kinnear once inadvertently referred to as "Charlie Insomnia" at Newcastle. The lack of cover he gave his left-back would have given Maynor Figueroa sleepless nights – four of United's goals came from that flank. The lack of unity in this Wigan side was displayed by N'Zogbia's dash down the tunnel and his refusal to shake his replacement's hand after being substituted.
Nevertheless, most sides would have succumbed to Rooney in this kind of form. The surprise was he only found the net once, although he struck the frame of the goal twice and set up the fifth for Antonio Valencia, who enjoyed enormous freedom against his former club.
They say the mark of a great sportsman is an ability to see an opportunity fractionally before anyone else and, just before the half-hour mark, he not only anticipated Rafael da Silva's cross, he met it just before Titus Bramble's challenge and hooked the ball into the net beneath the Stretford End.
Moments before, Rooney could have scored an even better goal, slipping the ball through Figueroa's legs as easily as if he were still on the playground at De La Salle School. The angle was dreadfully acute but he struck the foot of the post with a shot that somehow rebounded into the arms of Chris Kirkland. It was an absolute tour de force and Rooney's very presence contributed to Manchester United's second as Valencia ripped open Wigan's left flank. There was a bank of defenders but their focus was Rooney rather than the figure of Michael Carrick arriving behind them. He measured his shot beautifully.
Wigan were by now disintegrating as a defensive unit and had Dimitar Berbatov, the floppy fringe now abandoned for a rather more robust haircut, been sharper, the champions might have been five up going into the interval. It could not last and five minutes after the restart, Valencia's low cross through a thicket of defenders gave Berbatov an opportunity he did not spurn.
As it was, United had to be content with three at half time; however it was still a thing of beauty, especially when the lad who turned on the edge of the box surrounded by four defenders was playing right-back, although Rafael da Silva is far from your average stopper. At half-time Martinez replaced Kirkland with Mike Pollitt. He was suffering from a virus in the freezing temperatures but it may just have been to spare his goalkeeper further punishment.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Kuszczak; Rafael da Silva, Brown, Vidic (Anderson, 68), Evra (Fabio da Silva, 68); Valencia, Fletcher, Carrick, Park; Berbatov (Welbeck, 68), Rooney. Substitutes not used: Amos (gk), Neville, Owen, Obertan.
Wigan Athletic (4-1-4-1): Kirkland (Pollitt, h-t); Melchiot, Bramble, Boyce, Figueroa; Thomas (Edman, 71); Gomez, Won-Hee Cho, Scharner, N'Zogbia (Sinclair, 67); Rodallega. Substitutes not used: Scotland, Koumas, McCarthy.
Referee: L Mason (Lancashire).
Booked: Wigan N'Zogbia.
Man of the match: Rooney.
Attendance: 74,560.Reuse content