Shinji Kagawa scored a hat-trick as Manchester United extended their lead at the top of the Premier League to 15 points with a 4-0 home win over Norwich City.
The Japan international enjoyed his most productive 90 minutes in a United shirt since his summer move from Borussia Dortmund as he produced three delightful finishes to maintain United's seemingly unstoppable title charge ahead of their Champions League fixture with Real Madrid on Tuesday.
In first half injury time Kagawa poked a volley past Mark Bunn and in the second half he beat the keeper with a wonderfully disguised side-foot and then a gorgeous chip. As an exhibition of considered, delicate finishing it is unrivalled this season.
Wayne Rooney rounded off the scoring in the final minute with a more bombastic effort from range as United put further distance between themselves and rivals Manchester City, who face a trip to Aston Villa on Monday night.
United made six changes from the team which won at QPR last weekend, but while Real Madrid decided to leave Cristiano Ronaldo and Mesut Ozil out of their side to face Barcelona, also in a 3pm kick-off, Sir Alex Ferguson surprisingly deployed both Robin van Persie and Rooney ahead of Tuesday night's huge last-16 second leg.
If Ferguson's intent was clear - unwillingness to relent in his pursuit of a 20th league title for United - a similar sense of urgency was absent in his players in a rather uninspired start to the first half. With minds perhaps drifting to the midweek match with Madrid, United looked hesitant in possession and created few chances.
The home side produced some intricate football in short, sporadic bursts, one of which saw Anderson and Rooney combine to set Van Persie through on goal after 10 minutes. However, Bunn raced off his line to smother the ball and was hurt when Van Persie tried to nick it away from him.
With Norwich limited to a couple of hopeful yet ultimately fruitless crosses, Bunn and his centre-backs Michael Turner and Sebastien Bassong were Norwich's busiest players, United denied by a series of blocks before the keeper made a smart save at his near post to prevent a measured shot from Michael Carrick sneaking in.
United did finally profit from a rare flourish of quality deep into first-half injury time though. Antonio Valencia put in a left-footed cross from the right and Van Persie stuck his toe in the air to take the ball away from Bassong and send it spinning to Kagawa six yards from goal. The Japan international took it first time with a poked volley that caught Bunn out and rolled inside the post as the keeper's weight shifted the opposite way.
Kagawa had been United's brightest performer in the first half and showed his intelligence again after the break as he threaded a quite brilliant pass all of 35 yards to set Rooney away in the box. The striker took a touch to try and skip past the onrushing Bunn but the keeper extended his right leg to crucially touch the ball away.
Norwich were an improved side in the second half though and finally put United under pressure with a succession of set-pieces. They also wasted a brilliant chance in open play when Anthony Pilkington dinked a pass into Holt, who headed back across to goal to find Russell Martin five yards out. The defender only had to tap the ball home with David De Gea stranded yet wrapped his boot under the ball and criminally sent it over the bar.
United punished the visitors with a second after 76 minutes, and it was a masterpiece of understatement from Kagawa. Rooney darted in behind Bassong, checked onto his left and teed up the Japan star, who spotted Turner and Bunn moving right to cover the centre of the goal and simply brushed the ball the other way with his instep to convert with a gorgeous finish.
With three minutes remaining he was at it again. Substitute Danny Welbeck played the ball into Rooney and the striker turned it first time into Kagawa's path with a nice angled pass. Bunn came off his line and the playmaker expertly chipped the ball over the keeper and into the net.
Kagawa was setting the stylistic standard at Old Trafford with three finishes of rare subtlety. However, in the final minute Rooney rounded off what had become an emphatic victory with a moment of explosive brilliance, losing his marker with a swerve of the body before slamming a dipping shot past Bunn from 20 yards.
The shape his body took upon striking the shot and the flight of the ball were both eerily reminiscent of his first goal for Everton, against Arsenal, but even a reminder of Rooney's enduring brilliance was overshadowed by the more delicate input of his Japanese team-mate.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Shinji Kagawa (Manchester United) - A classy performance from the Japan star as he bagged three and stroked the ball around comfortably all afternoon.
MAN UTD: De Gea 6, Smalling 7, Vidic 6, Evans 7, Evra 7, Anderson 6, Carrick 7, Valencia 7, Rooney 8, Kagawa 9, Van Persie 6. Subs: Welbeck 7, Cleverley 6.
NORWICH: Bunn 7, Martin 5, Bassong 6, Turner 6, Garrrido 5, Johnson 5, Howson 5, Snodgrass 7, Hoolahan 5, Pilkington 5, Holt 6. Subs: Kamara 6, Bennett 6, Becchio N/A.
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- Shinji Kagawa
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