Manchester United moved to within touching distance of a third consecutive league title after staging a stunning second-half rally to beat Tottenham Hotspur 5-2. Trailing 2-0 at the interval, the champions built on a controversial penalty decision to floor Spurs and reclaim a three-point lead over Liverpool, who had kept up the pressure with a 3-1 win at Hull earlier in the day. With the added advantage of a game in hand, United now know that, even if their closest rivals win all their remaining matches, ten points from their final five games will be enough to equal Liverpool's record of 18 English league titles.
United looked unstoppable by the end, but their comeback was launched by a hotly-debated penalty, Tottenham goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes having got his fingers to the ball before his dive floored Michael Carrick. Cristiano Ronaldo converted the resulting spot-kick and United added another three in the space of 15 minutes.
Rooney fired in an equaliser that Gomes might have saved and then delivered a cross that enabled Ronaldo to get his second with a diving header.The deluge was not over. Just three minutes on and United counter-attacked effectively, Berbatov springing Ronaldo clear for the winger to pick out Rooney whose strike was blocked by Jonathan Woodgate, only for the officials to judge that it had crossed the line.
At 4-2, the contest was finished although United were not. In the 78th minute, Rooney's left-wing cross picked out the head of Berbatov with Gomes initially saving the attempt before the United striker forced the ball home to make it five goals in 22 minutes.
There had been little hint of the drama to come in the opening half hour, as United seemed to take control of affairs. But the game shifted unpredictably just before the half-hour mark when Darren Bent and Luka Modric both benefited from Aaron Lennon's dominance down the right wing.
First, Lennon's short pass opened up the angle for Vedran Corluka to cross into the area where Rio Ferdinand was slow to detect Bent's presence. Having failed to connect with one header, Bent still had time to gather the loose ball and drive it past Edwin van der Sar.
Just three minutes later, Patrice Evra again failed miserably to deal with the threat of Lennon and the England winger's cross was missed by the entire United defence, allowing Modric the time and space to take a touch and finish emphatically.
Finally provoked into life, United responded with Gomes saving well from Rafael Da Silva's running shot and then the keeper producing a stunning, one-handed save to keep out a Ronaldo half-volley, attempted after the United man's initial free-kick had struck the Tottenham wall.
But Ferguson acknowledged the dire situation by bringing on Tevez as a half-time substitute for the ineffective Nani. The switch paid off almost immediately with the Argentinian picking out Rooney in a crowded area, only for the former Everton star to try and place his shot into the far corner, succeeding only in putting the ball behind. Tevez himself raced clear on goal and was denied by a brave Gomes save, but United's strong opening to the second half was a mere prelude to the devastating blitz that was to come.
Earlier, Liverpool had done their job with a comfortable win at Hull, courtesy of Xabi Alonso's first-half strike and a second-half double from Dirk Kuyt on his 100th league appearance. Speaking before he knew the United result, Reds manager Rafael Benitez insisted the title race was still alive.
"Nothing is over," he said. "This was a good win because Hull made it hard for us, but all we can do is keep winning and see what happens."
Elsewhere, Chelsea left big guns Michael Essien, Michael Ballack and Didier Drogba on the bench for their trip to West Ham United with one eye on their 28 April trip to Barcelona for the first leg of their UEFA Champions League semi-final. But they still had sufficient quality to overcome their London rivals, thanks largely to a superb penalty save from Petr Cech.
Salomon Kalou's 55th-minute strike gave Guus Hiddink's men the lead, but the Ivory Coast striker blotted his copybook by pulling down Herita Ilunga in the box to hand West Ham the opportunity to equalise. Mark Noble's spot-kick was directed firmly towards the corner, but Cech threw himself to his left to touch it round the post. And Bolton's meeting with Aston Villa ended in a 1-1 draw after Tamir Cohen cancelled out Ashley Young's first-half strike for Villa.