(PhatzRadio / CBC Sports) — Shinji Kagawa’s hat trick and a stunning goal from Wayne Rooney maintained Manchester United’s march to the Premier League title on Saturday, while Rafa Benitez was spared a fierce backlash from Chelsea fans in the team’s 1-0 win over West Bromwich Albion.
Luis Suarez matched Kagawa’s exploits by scoring three times in Liverpool’s 4-0 win over Wigan, lifting him above United striker Robin van Persie to the top of the division’s scoring charts with 21 goals.
United provisionally moved 15 points clear with a 4-0 thrashing of Norwich at Old Trafford, with Japan midfielder Kagawa opening the scoring just before halftime and grabbing two more well-taken goals to become the first Asian player to score a hat trick in England’s top division.
“It was a brilliant day for him,” said United manager Alex Ferguson, who left Ryan Giggs out of the matchday squad to keep the veteran midfielder waiting for his 1,000th senior competitive appearance for club and country.
Rooney garnished the scoreline with a long-distance screamer in injury time as United warmed up for its Champions League match against Real Madrid in style. Second-place Manchester City plays Aston Villa on Monday.
Chelsea provisionally moved into third place — four points behind City — thanks to Demba Ba’s 28th-minute winner, giving Benitez some respite after his midweek tirade against the club’s fans and board that appeared to leave him in a precarious position.
The hostility among the home support was expected to be cranked up but the atmosphere was relatively calm inside Stamford Bridge, giving Chelsea the serenity to secure a crucial win in its battle for a finish in the Champions League spots.
“There were a lot of positives,” Benitez said. “The reception from the crowd was quite good. I wanted everybody to stick together.”
Tottenham, which provisionally slipped to fourth, hosts fifth-place Arsenal on Sunday.
Last-place Queens Park Rangers gave its survival hopes a boost by winning 2-1 at Southampton to move three points adrift of Reading, which lost 3-1 at Everton.
Swansea’s first game since winning the League Cup final last weekend ended in a 1-0 victory at home to Newcastle, with Luke Moore scoring a late winner, while Sunderland came from two goals down to draw 2-2 against Fulham.
West Ham stopped its slide into the relegation trouble by beating Stoke 1-0 away.
All the pre-match build-up centred on the possibility of Giggs reaching his milestone, but it was another midfielder who stole the headlines at Old Trafford.
Playing only his second game since January, Kagawa showed just why Ferguson spent 12 million pounds bringing him from Borussia Dortmund in the summer with his best display in a United shirt.
All his finishes were classy, his first a measured volley inside the near post to put United on its way. Kagawa then wrong-footed Norwich goalkeeper Mark Bunn in the 76th after running onto Rooney’s pass and he chipped Bunn to complete his hat trick three minutes from time.
Kagawa, who has struggled to recover his best form after sustaining a knee injury in October, walked away with the match ball for scoring three goals but the best strike was saved for last, as Rooney shimmied past a defender before looping a brilliant shot into the top corner.
The win was sealed despite Ferguson leaving out Rafael da Silva, Rio Ferdinand and Tom Cleverley, who are all set to return to the first team for the last-16 second leg against Madrid on Tuesday.
After all the talk of an expected toxic atmosphere, Chelsea’s fans let Benitez off quite lightly after his outburst Wednesday following the FA Cup win at Middlesbrough.
Perhaps his pleas for unity have been heeded, with the team given plenty of encouragement throughout. The margin of victory should have been far heavier, and West Brom could easily have snatched an equalizer after late pressure in the final 10 minutes.
As it was, Ba’s sidefooted finish from David Luiz’s nod-down proved enough.
“The players played with more confidence and it was clear it was very positive,” Benitez said.
Suarez is now two goals clear of Van Persie after joining Robbie Fowler and Fernando Torres as the only Liverpool players to score at least 20 goals in a Premier League campaign.
The Uruguay international scored twice before halftime and completed his hat trick in the 49th, adding to the second-minute opener netted by Stewart Downing.
The big win kept alive Liverpool’s hopes of European football next season — it is five points adrift of fifth-place Arsenal in seventh.
Real Madrid gets the best of Barcelona, again: La Liga
Real Madrid beat Barcelona for the second time in five days, a 2-1 win on Saturday which will do little to prevent its fierce rival from reclaiming the Spanish league title but should boost Jose Mourinho’s team for its Champions League trip to Manchester United.
Sergio Ramos netted the winner in the 82nd minute when he rose up to head in Luka Modric’s corner to give Madrid its first home league victory over Barcelona since 2008, in a game that grew testy toward the end and saw Barca goalkeeper Victor Valdes sent off for protesting.
Lionel Messi extended his Spanish league scoring record to 16 straight games when he equalized in the 18th minute to cancel out Karim Benzema’s sixth-minute opener. That was Messi’s 18th career goal in clasicos to tie Madrid great Alfredo Di Stefano’s mark set in the 1950s and ’60s, but Barcelona was otherwise a shadow of the thrilling team that until last season had dominated the rivalry in recent years.
“We deserved to win. The team has been strengthened by these clasico matches,” Ramos said. “We are going to Manchester convinced [we will move on] but with respect for our opponent.”
Madrid even managed without Cristiano Ronaldo for much of the match, as Mourinho rested the Portuguese winger until the final half hour with the game against United on Tuesday in mind.
Ronaldo scored twice on Tuesday in a 3-1 win over Barcelona at Camp Nou that put Madrid into the Copa del Rey final.
While Madrid remains 13 points behind Barcelona in the league, this result could allow second-place Atletico Madrid to cut the deficit to nine points on Sunday at Malaga.
Elsewhere, Jose Barkero levelled one minute from time to give Levante a 2-2 draw at Valencia in a city derby. Athletic Bilbao won 1-0 at Osasuna, and last-place Deportivo La Coruna drew 0-0 at home with Rayo Vallecano.
Barcelona has flopped in its last three games against major opponents after also losing 2-0 at AC Milan in the Champions League. It faces an uphill battle against the Italian side in the return leg on March 12.
“It’s impossible to keep up the same level of play for 12 months,” Gerard Pique said. “But it is true that we have played three or four bad games and that is serious because Barcelona always has to win. But this team will turn things around. I believe that because this is the best team I have ever played on. I’m surprised so many people have already jumped off the bandwagon.”
Madrid, meanwhile, played with more confidence even with a number of backups in its starting lineup as it earned back-to-back wins over Barcelona for the first time since the 2007-08 season.
Midfielders Xabi Alonso and Mesut Oezil were also given a rest, along with forward Angel Di Maria. Madrid visits United on Tuesday with their last-16 tie poised at 1-1.
Barcelona assistant coach Jordi Roura, on the touchline for Tito Vilanova as he continues treatment for a throat tumour in New York, selected striker David Villa to accompany Messi and Thiago Alcantara to replace the injured Xavi Hernandez.
Even with several new faces, Madrid picked up where it left off at Camp Nou when a ball intercepted in midfield led to a swift goal in two passes, as Barcelona’s defence conceded a goal for the 13th game in a row.
Ramos picked off Thiago’s pass and fed Alvaro Morata on the left wing. The young forward sent a routine cross into the area to meet Benzema’s run behind the distracted Javier Mascherano to volley home, leaving Messi shaking his head in disbelief at the ease his defence had allowed Madrid to go in front.
Messi, however, made sure Barcelona hit back when he beat Madrid’s offside trap to reach Dani Alves’ well-placed pass, cut back and fired under the backtracking Ramos with a sharp left-footed effort.
Messi reached the 50-goal mark for the third straight season with the goal, his league-leading 39th through 26 rounds.
Mourinho sent on Ronaldo in the 57th and he immediately earned a booking for fouling Gerard Pique. He hit the woodwork with a free kick.
Otherwise, the second half saw more physical play, petty fouls, and yellow cards than flowing play or clear scoring opportunities until the final minutes.
Ramos beat Pique to score the header that proved the difference. Pique, who gave away a penalty with a foul on Ronaldo on Tuesday at Camp Nou, completed his dismal week by giving away a corner kick and then letting Ramos outjump him to turn it into the net.
The game ended with the referee ignoring Ramos’ trip of Adriano in the area that would have meant a stoppage-time penalty, leading to Victor Valdes being sent off for receiving two yellow cards for protesting vehemently.
AC Milan cruises over 10-man Lazio: Serie A
AC Milan cruised to a 3-0 victory over 10-man Lazio on Saturday in a direct battle for third place in Serie A and a spot in next season’s Champions League.
Lazio was seeking a first win at San Siro since 1989 but its chances grew slimmer when Antonio Candreva was controversially shown a straight red card after just 15 minutes.
Candreva brought down Stephan El Shaarawy on the edge of the box and was adjudged to have prevented a clear scoring opportunity.
Milan broke the deadlock five minutes before halftime as Lazio goalkeeper Federico Marchetti spilled a shot and Giampaolo Pazzini tapped into an empty net from close range.
Marchetti did well to parry Pazzini’s header from a corner, but Kevin-Prince Boateng was on hand to follow up and double Milan’s lead on the stroke of halftime.
Pazzini sealed the result on the hour with a powerful, long-range strike into the bottom right corner.
“Pazzini always needs to prove himself because it’s always been like that, but Pazzini is very happy, he’s scored 12 goals,” Pazzini said. “I thank everyone because they have put me in the best conditions to do well. We hope to still do more from now until the end of the season.
“We had two horrendous months [at the beginning of the season] and then we bounced back. The credit goes to everyone: Players, the president and the coach. We are doing very well, we have to get as many points as possible and never give up.”
Balotelli was missing from the match after the Milan striker was injured in last weekend’s derby in a collision with Inter Milan goalkeeper Samir Handanovic.
Milan leapfrogs a point above Lazio into third place.