Dimitar Berbatov hat-trick moves Manchester United towards top speed
This may have been the afternoon the Manchester United juggernaut finally moved into high gear. Their unbeaten run in the Premier League this season is now 22, a sequence that stretches back to the April day Chelsea came here and departed with a win that swung last year's championship towards London.
Birmingham City arrived with hopes of being the crew to finally halt Sir Alex Ferguson's gang but within a minute of kick-off a big hole was punched in these pretensions by opponents who became better and better as the afternoon went on.
Ryan Giggs, who began the match in rampaging mode and would finish a magnificent move just before the break, floated in a corner that a slumbering defence allowed John O'Shea to back-flick into the danger area. David Murphy, the Birmingham left-back, stood on the goalline as Dimitar Berbatov wandered away to secure the simplest of finishes and begin a memorable hat-trick.
Too much space was the charge for this goal – and the four that followed. After the half-hour Roger Johnson made an awful mistake near halfway, passing straight to Anderson. The midfielder touched the ball to Wayne Rooney, who advanced towards a back-pedalling defence, before moving possession on to Berbatov. From an inside-left berth the Bulgarian was allowed to motor into the area and unload a shot that beat Ben Foster. It was his 17th goal of the season.
United's third was brilliant. Berbatov, sliding along the grass, somehow managed to intercept David Bentley's pass. He laid the ball off to Rooney, who returned it with a cleverly clipped back-heel before continuing his run. When he received again from Berbatov, Rooney glanced up and, from wide right, produced a delivery that bent sweetly across Birmingham's area to find Giggs, who smashed the ball home to draw the contest to a end.
This, understandably, had Ferguson purring. "The third was exciting – the interchange between the players," he said. "It was a killer goal coming right on half-time."
Rooney's curious season had its latest instalment moments into the second half. While the 24-year-old continues to be one of United's baton wavers he has scored once from open play. And when Nani again got behind Birmingham's defence and flipped over a delivery that dropped precisely on Rooney's head, he somehow pushed his attempted finish wide of a gaping goal.
"We hope the goals come for Rooney, he deserves it," Ferguson said. "He played some great football today and worked his socks off. He showed fantastic control from Edwin van der Sar's ball that came out the clouds to set up Giggs, in the build-up for the fourth goal."
This was after the break when Berbatov finished for a third that again illustrated how lethal he is in a campaign that could close in May with United matching Arsenal's Invincibles of 2003‑04.
When Giggs played him in, the left-foot finish that secured Berbatov's third hat-trick of the season was banged emphatically beyond Foster. Nani then made it 5-0 14 minutes from time when Birmingham backed off yet again.
Ferguson said: "It was a really good team performance. We were helped by an early goal. They had to open up. We were able to take Patrice [Evra] off and give him a break, though Michael [Carrick] has a sore one." The latter player went off after a first-half challenge by Alexander Hleb.
"Berbatov was marvellous," Ferguson said. "We were a bit wasteful at times but we can't complain with the scoreline. It helps the goal difference. We have some tough games ahead but hopefully the players can grasp the nettle."
Whether Rio Ferdinand, who missed this match with a groin problem, can face Blackpool on Tuesday will be decided .
Alex McLeish was left lamenting a slipshod performance by his team. "We were apprehensive," he said.
Other opponents of United will surely feel the same this season.
THE FANS' PLAYER RATINGS AND VERDICT
SOPHIE QUIRKE, Observer reader This was our best performance of the season. We'll be lucky to get to the end of it unbeaten, but if we keep playing like we did today, even against stronger opposition, then there's definitely a chance. Winning the title is in our hands now: we just have to keep performing and we won't be caught. Berbatov deserves the headlines: he's really changed the supporters' view of him this season. He can still be frustrating to watch – at times he doesn't look interested – but he's so intelligent on the ball: he's having a brilliant season. Anderson also did really well in midfield.
The fan's player ratings Van der Sar 7; O'Shea 6, Smalling 8, Vidic 7, Evra 6 (Da Silva ht 6); Anderson 8, Carrick 6 (Gibson 24 6); Nani 5, Rooney 7, Giggs 8 (Owen 55 6); Berbatov 9
STEVE SMITH, Observer reader It was only ever a question of how many we'd concede here, but five was uncomfortably bad. It was grim: we looked nervous and seemed overwhelmed by United (who, admittedly, were at their best). Too many misplaced passes, players refusing to take responsibility and a general negative approach – our manager's trademark. Right now I'd be happy to see the back of McLeish in favour of an impact manager to shake things up. Even Sam Allardyce. The biggest contribution we made to the entertainment was Keith Fahey's miss: it was sensational by any standards.
The fan's player ratings Foster 6; Carr 5, Johnson 3, Ridgewell 3, Murphy 4; Bentley 7 (Gardner 82 5), Ferguson 6, Mutch 6, Fahey 5 (Larsson 57 5), Hleb 5 (Jerome ht 5); Derbyshire 5