Manchester United's grip on the Premier League trophy tightened significantly on Sunday as Sir Alex Ferguson's side put Chelsea to the sword in front of a jubilant Old Trafford. Nemanja Vidic's header on the stroke of half-time was followed by second-half goals for Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov as the champions ran out 3-0 winners in what had been billed as one of the season's pivotal encounters.
It was a performance which suggested that Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez may come to deeply regret his claim that United had been unsettled by the resilience of his side's challenge, particularly when it is set against the disjointed display that Benitez's men produced in Saturday's goalless draw at Stoke.
In terms of territory and possession, Chelsea's best spell was the opening half-hour, a period in which referee Howard Webb brandished four yellow cards yet was surprisingly lacking in intensity. It was United however who 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. With Didier Drogba cutting a lonely figure up front, the best Chelsea had mustered by that stage were a couple of free-kicks on the edge of United's area, neither of which troubled Edwin van der Sar.
Ashley Cole's domination of Cristiano Ronaldo in their personal battle helped to ensure United were equally uninspired until the approach of half-time finally prompted them into the phase of sustained pressure that was to yield their opening goal.
It began with Park Ji-Sung forcing John Terry into last-ditch block. The ensuing corner resulted in United appealing furiously for a penalty as Darren Fletcher's mishit shot appeared to strike Terry's outstretched arm just inside the box.
There followed another corner, to which 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.
It was an incident with almost limitless potential for debate but its impact was neutralised when 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.
Scolari's response was to withdraw Deco at the interval and send on Nicolas Anelka in a bid to relieve Drogba from his lonely isolation in attack. Briefly it appeared as if the Frenchman's pace and physical presence might unsettle a United back four in which Jonny Evans had performed with impressive maturity in the absence of Rio Ferdinand, whose anticipated return from a back injury had failed to materialise.
Instead it was to be United who applied the killer blow, just after an hour had elapsed. Once again, Evra, revelling in his return from a four-match suspension imposed following his bust-up with a groundsman after the 1-1 draw between the two sides at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season, played a central role.
Released by Ronaldo's backheel, 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.
Wigan leave it late
In the day's earlier game, Maynor Figueroa's stoppage-time header secured Wigan Athletic's 1-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur at the JJB Stadium as they strengthened their grip on seventh place in the Premier League.
Defeat was cruel on Spurs, who had to play the closing stages with goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes unable to move freely because of a leg injury after using all their substitutes, and left the visitors in the bottom three.
It looked as if the Londoners, with Jermain Defoe making his second debut for the club after re-joining Spurs from Portsmouth, would salvage a draw. But with Gomes rooted to his line, unmarked Honduran left-back Figueroa headed in powerfully from a Ryan Taylor corner in the 91st minute to score his first goal for north-west side Wigan.
This win meant Wigan had taken 18 points out of a possible 21 from their last seven league matches. Spurs had the better of what chances there were in a goalless first-half although it was Wigan who finished the opening period the stronger and Gomes had to smother a close-range effort from Emile Heskey in the 39th minute.
Tottenham with Ledley King in a re-shaped defence looked to be seeing out a lively second-half where referee Andre Marriner booked several Wigan players. But Steve Bruce's men had the last laugh over Harry Redknapp's team when the Spurs defence failed to pick-up Figueroa.