Red Devils take full advantage of defeats to Arsenal and Chelsea
Neither Wayne Rooney’s return nor Wigan Athletic’s twin sending off could inspire Manchester United as they stumbled to a 2-0 victory.
The win - thanks to a pair of headers from Patrice Evra and Javier Hernandez – saw United draw level with Premier League leaders Chelsea on 28 points after their shock defeat to Birmingham City.
In truth, the performance was a long way short of that expected from potential champions as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side continued to fail to convince.
For the hosts, Wayne Rooney was welcomed back with a spot on the bench. Fresh from scoring a mid-week brace for the Italy under-21s, Federico Macheda was the lone forward in an under-strength side with Gabriel Obertan tasked to support him.
Wigan boss Roberto Martinez continued with Dutch wide-man Ronnie Stam pushed up the pitch to right-wing. Steven Caldwell replaced injured brother Gary at centre-back.
From kick-off, the visitor's sat back and waited to release Huge Rodallega on the break. The Colombia international picked up a poor clearance from Nemanja Vidic close to goal in the fifth minute.
Edwin van der Sar raced out to remedy the situation, only for the ball to come out to Jordi Gomez who skied under pressure from the Serb.
Vidic almost got on the score sheet three minutes later when a Nani free kick went through the Wigan defence. Goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi had to be alert to punch the ball to safety.
A Nani shot from the edge of the box was just deflected wide in the 12th minute before Macheda was narrowly flagged offside shortly after.
United's inexperienced attack struggled to get a grip on the match and Ferguson soon emerged from the dugout to dictate proceedings. This lethargy had transmitted to the crowd who seemed to be waiting for inspiration to find their voice.
Another Nani free-kick was met by Vidic in the 30th minute, but no-one in red was present to meet his header across goal.
The frustration at United's tentative start threatened to boil over in the 33rd minute when Nani and Maynor Figueroa enjoyed a wrestling match in the corner. Referee Martin Atkinson rightly calmed the situation without having to produce a yellow card.
Moment after Stam had fired wide when positioned well in the area, Rooney made his first warm up run on the touchline in the 35th minute. The £250,000 a week man was met with a mostly warm reception with just a few voices of dissention audible.
United had lost momentum without their star player and van der Sar was forced to smother a Charles N'Zogbia shot shortly after.
With the half unwinding into one hard to stomach for the home support, Evra - arguably against the run of play - nodded United into the lead on the stroke of injury time.
The French left-back took advantage of some static defending to head a deep Ji-Sung Park cross past Al Habsi and give an undeserved gloss to the score line as the teams headed into the dressing room.
United continued in the same erratic manner as the second period began.
After Gabriel Obertan stumbled over a low Nani centre in the 55th minute, Ferguson reacted by looking to his substitutes. After the crowd had called his name, Rooney made his Old Trafford comeback along with old hand Paul Scholes.
The England man was welcomed with open hands by the support who had seemed to have kept faith despite his indiscretions. Whether this was reliant on the despair caused by the poor fare supplied by the support cast put out in his absence was left open to debate.
Martinez’s side then imploded in a mad few moments around the hour mark and went down to nine-men. Stand-in skipper Antolin Alcaraz was given his marching orders for a second yellow before Rodallega was sent down the tunnel for a two-footed lunge on Rafael Da Silva minutes later.
The sting had now been taken out of the match and United continued to plod away against their numerically depleted opposition. Rooney rose to head his first chance at Al Habsi on 70 minutes after a lofted cross from Rafael.
The ascendancy was now firmly in United’s way and a second seemed inevitable. Another cross from the Brazilian right back was converted by substitute Hernandez as he swooped low from just in front of the penalty spot to seal the victory in the 77th minute.
Ferguson’s men kept the now demoralised Wigan under the cosh. Nani drew another stop from the impressive Al Habsi with a powerful shot from the edge of the box in the 85th minute.
Hernandez then wasted a glorious chance to double his total two minutes later when he mishit as he dove to edge in a Nani cross with the goal at his mercy. The Portuguese then fired a cross at Al Habsi when played into space by Rooney.
Rooney – who still looked some way short of his best - also passed up the chance to mark his return with a goal. Another centre from Nani was weakly pushed Al Habsi’s way in injury time.
Upon the final whistle, United could reflect on a final result that rested much on Wigan’s two dismissals. Ferguson’s men barely got out of first gear again despite Rooney’s reintroduction, but claimed the three points that had slipped through their fingers in previous matches this season.