Antonio axed, Van Persie delivers at Latics

Posted by Musa Okwonga

Robin van PersiePA PhotosRobin van Persie added another two goals to his United account

This could have been so much tougher for Manchester United. Though the final score was a 4-0 victory over Wigan, their sixth such scoreline in seven seasons, the first 20 minutes suggested nothing similar. Wigan, whose 1-0 defeat of their visitors last season had crucially impeded United's title charge, began very well here, with James McArthur and James McCarthy combative in midfield and Franco Di Santo, Aruna Kone and Shaun Maloney purposeful in attack.

- Man United cruise at Wigan

Manchester United, for their part, sat curiously deep for the first twenty minutes or so, as if in deference to the threat of the Wigan wing-backs. Jean Beausejour, in particular, was the danger, with much of the home side's creativity traditionally coming through him. It was notable that Rafael returned to face him, and too that Ashley Young was brought across to face him, replacing the out-of-form Antonio Valencia. Ryan Giggs started on the left, after very good performances over the festive period.

United lined up in a 4-4-1-1 against Wigan's 3-4-3, with Robin van Persie as the withdrawn playmaker and Javier Hernandez as the lone striker. In the early stages Hernandez, who had netted four times in five previous games against Wigan, was isolated as the Red Devils chose to feed him on a diet of long balls, both diagonal and directly over the top. The better of these passes found him test Ali Al-Habsi at the near post with a first-time strike (via Van Persie, after four minutes) and then finish with a low drive (from Giggs on 11 minutes, which was correctly flagged offside). In between these moves, the ball ricocheted into Young's path for him to whip the ball across goal, but Hernandez's predatory instincts, for once, were not with him.

United grew in assurance, and what had begun as a series of opportunistic raids into the Wigan area became concerted pressure. Indeed, their first goal, on 35 minutes, came from closing the ball down. Rafael won possession, Jonny Evans strode forward to lay the ball into Patrice Evra's path in the inside-left channel, and the left-back's shot from ten yards was parried by Al-Habsi to the scavenging feet of Hernandez. Manchester United were a goal to the good, and the performances of Giggs and Jonny Evans were cause for particular cheer.

Giggs combined well with Cleverley down the left flank, forcing Wigan on their heels, and on the one occasion that he was caught dangerously in possession by Aruna Kone - who broke 60 yards, to United's penalty area - Evans apprehended the striker with ease, aided by an impressive burst of acceleration.

The second goal on 43 minutes, which dispelled much of the tension in the match, came perhaps predictably from Van Persie. The Dutchman's 15th goal of the Premier League season was a delight, as he took a pass from Hernandez fifteen yards from goal on his left foot, shuffled it deftly onto his right, and then curled the ball lovingly into the far corner. Arsenal fans will not welcome a comparison with Dennis Bergkamp, but this strike could happily have graced his countryman's catalogue.

After half-time, the game was understandably stretched, as Wigan pursued a goal to give them a stake in proceedings. They almost had it, but for the sharp eyes of an assistant who denied Kone a tap-in for offside. The decision was a fine one, but it also highlighted the alarming swiftness with which Manchester United lost concentration, their defenders caught worryingly square when Di Santo was first played into space.

Manchester United needed no further scares to make the game safe, and security arrived on 63 minutes. From 30 yards, Van Persie drove a low free-kick into the defensive wall, and the ball bounced towards the penalty spot and into the path of Hernandez, who met it without mercy.

Michael Carrick, United's most diligent midfield servant, was withdrawn shortly afterwards for a much-deserved break, replaced by Shinji Kagawa. This was a move that inevitably allowed Wigan a greater balance of the play, but that was still not enough to deny the away side a fourth goal. After 88 minutes Danny Welbeck, who was introduced ten minutes earlier for the impressive Young, won possession after pressing and surged forward, squaring for Van Persie to tap home his second. 4-0; and with that, Manchester United had retained their seven-point league lead, and kept their second successive clean sheet.

All in all, they had not given away too many costly gifts during the festive season: which, with Manchester City and Chelsea easing themselves into form, was just the birthday present that Sir Alex Ferguson, 71 on New Years' Eve, would have wanted.

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