MANCHESTER: Manchester United’s grip on the English Premier League football trophy tightened significantly on Sunday as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side put Chelsea to the sword in front of a jubilant Old Trafford crowd.
Nemanja Vidic’s header on the stroke of half-time was followed by second-half goals for Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov as the champion ran out 3-0 winner in what had been billed as one of the season’s pivotal encounters.
In terms of territory and possession, Chelsea’s best spell was the opening half-an-hour, a period in which referee Howard Webb brandished four yellow cards yet was surprisingly lacking in intensity.
It was Manchester United, however, which generated the first real chance of the match courtesy of the positive running of Patrice Evra. Collecting the ball deep in his own half, the French left-back surged forward before finding Rooney on the edge of the box.
The England forward’s flick found Berbatov and the cutest of sidesteps left Ricardo Carvalho sprawling but, with only Petr Cech to beat, the Bulgarian scuffed his shot and the Chelsea goalkeeper was able to make a comfortable save.
Manchester United was uninspired until the approach of half-time finally prompted it into the phase of sustained pressure that was to yield its opening goal.
It began with Park Ji-Sung forcing John Terry into a last-ditch block. The ensuing corner resulted in Manchester United appealing furiously for a penalty as Darren Fletcher’s mis-hit shot appeared to strike Terry’s outstretched arm just inside the box.
There followed another corner, to which Manchester United applied what appeared to be a cleverly conceived training ground ploy with Rooney tapping the ball off the corner before walking away as if he had decided to leave it for someone else.
Chelsea’s defence bought the bluff and switched off, allowing Ryan Giggs to pick up the ball and send in a chip that Cristiano Ronaldo headed in at the near post, only for the linesman to flag — mistakenly — that the corner had not been taken legitimately.
Manchester United scored from the retaken corner. This time, Giggs sent the dead ball into the area, Berbatov flicked-on and Vidic’s diving header squeezed past Cech at his back post.
Manchester United applied the killer blow, just after an hour had elapsed. Once again, Evra played a central role.
Released by Ronaldo’s back-heel, the Frenchman whipped in a dipping cross that both Terry and Ashley Cole might have cleared before Rooney prodded it past Cech from close range.
With Chelsea demoralised, Berbatov was able to add a third in the closing minutes, drifting between Michael Ballack and Terry to prod home Ronaldo’s low cross from the left of the box.
Earlier, Maynor Figueroa scored his first goal for Wigan in injury time give his team a 1-0 win over an injury-hit Tottenham.
The results: On Sunday: Wigan 1 (Figueroa 90) bt Tottenham 0; Manchester United 3 (Vidic 45, Rooney 63, Berbatov 87) bt Chelsea 0.
On Saturday: Stoke City 0 drew with Liverpool 0. — Agencies