WIGAN’S miserable record against United continued after another nightmare afternoon at the Theatre of Dreams - but that only tells half the story of a controversial Boxing Day encounter.
Once again, Latics found themselves on the wrong side of a major footballing injustice as their recent resurgence was halted in its tracks.
Losing 1-0 but well in the game as half-time approached, Conr Sammon was controversially sent off by referee Phil Dowd for an innocuous coming-together on halfway with Michael Carrick.
The Wigan striker was a picture of astonishment as Dowd brandished red, which all-but condemned Latics to their 14th defeat out of 14 against United.
Within seconds, Dimitar Berbatov had added to Ji-Sung Parks’ opener, and the Bulgarian completed his hat-trick in the second half with ex-Wigan winger Antonio Valencia also on the mark.
Wigan’s only real shot on target came from Momo Diame just before the break, as they remain in the bottom three ahead of the New Year’s Eve clash at Stoke.
Roberto Martinez had named an unchanged side for the fourth game in a row, with Franco di Santo and Hugo Rodallega both on the bench once again.
Sir Alex Ferguson opted to ring the changes for United, with Valencia switched to right-back and England midfielder Carrick at centre-back.
As expected, United saw plenty of ball in the opening exchanges, but Latics managed to keep the champions at arm’s length.
Valencia managed to get to the byline inside the first five minutes, but his cross was too far and Ali Al Habsi was able to clear.
The visitors signalled their intent by twice getting Victor Moses on the ball, the former Crystal Palace man looking dangerous on the break before being crowded out.
But just as Latics were settling down into some kind of rhythm, United took the lead on eight minutes with their first real shot on goal.
Patrice Evra created the opening by dissecting Moses and Antolin Alcaraz down the left, and his cut-back was side-footed home by Park with Al Habsi helpless.
Credit Latics, though, they didn’t let their heads drop and could have equalised within five minutes.
Ronnie Stam did well to get himself a yard down the right-hand side, but his cross was just too high for Sammon.
At the other end, Gary Caldwell had to move swiftly to stop a cross getting to Berbatov, while the skipper then did ever so well to get back to clear a Nani effort off the line with Al Habsi beaten.
In between, Javier Hernandez had half a shout for a penalty ignored by Dowd after falling over the outstretched leg of Alcaraz, and Darron Gibson saw his goalbound shot deflected behind off James McCarthy.
David Jones picked up the first yellow card of the game midway through the first half for a late challenge on Park, with Jonny Evans quickly joining him for upending Jordi Gomez on the edge of the United box.
The Spaniard’s free-kick, however, was poor and easily dealt with by the wall.
Nani did much better with a similar free-kick moments later, although the ball didn’t have quite enough curl on it to force Al Habsi into a save.
It could and perhaps should have been all-square on the half-hour mark, when Stam whipped in an excellent ball from the right only to see it fly through the corridor of uncertainty and behind for a goal kick.
Stam’s face as he ran back to his position said it all, and he was entitled to have expected either Moses or Sammon to have gambled rather than holding their position on the edge of the six-yard box.
The Dutchman was asking more questions with nine minutes of the first half remaining, his cross again evading both Moses and Sammon, before the Dubliner’s afternoon was curtailed in the most controversial of circumstances.
As Latics cleared their lines towards halfway, Sammon jumped for the ball with Carrick, who pulled away clutching his face after colliding with the arm of the Wigan man.
Incredibly, Dowd reached straight for his back pocket and produced a red card, to the utter amazement of virtually everyone inside the stadium - not least Sammon himself.
And copius amounts of salt was added to Wigan wounds barely a minute later when Berbatov was afforded time and space inside the box and finished coolly past Al Habsi.
After an encouraging first half-hour, Latics - through little fault of their own - were now looking down the barrels at another pummelling at Old Trafford.
Thankfully they got through to the interval without more damage, and Di Santo appeared for the second half for Diame to give Latics something of a presence up top.
Even with the introduction of their top scorer, it was always going to be the longest of 45 minutes for the visitors.
And despite not giving up the ghost against increasing odds, goal number three went in just before the hour mark when Berbatov controlled exquisitely inside the box and smashed past Al Habsi.
If Latics were hoping that would be the signal for United to put the cue back into the rack, they couldn’t have been more wrong with the appearance of Wayne Rooney and Federico Macheda for Nani and Ryan Giggs.
And the two substitutes combined within moments of their introduction, Macheda crossing for Rooney to scuff his shot, and Hernandez firing the loose ball over the bar.
James McArthur replaced Gomez inside the final quarter as Latics tried to restrict the damage, but Valencia notched number four with a low drive that was past Al Habsi before he could move.
Wigan’s sorry afternoon worsened with 12 minutes remaining when Alcaraz was adjudged by the official to have tripped Park inside the box - despite TV replays showing the contact was outside.
And Berbatov completed his hat-trick with a sublime spot-kick that left Al Habsi rooted to the spot.
Moses gave way for Rodallega at the next break in play with half an eye on next weekend’s trip to Stoke, but Latics were in the end grateful to keep it to five as United moved joint-top of the Premier League.
Latics: Al Habsi; Alcaraz, Caldwell, Figueroa; McCarthy, Diame, Jones; Gomez, Moses; Sammon.
Subs: Pollitt, Gohouri, McArthur (for Gomez, 70), Watson, Crusat, Rodallega (for Moses, 81), Di Santo (for Diame, 46).
United: Lindegaard; Valencia, Carrick, Evans, Evra; Nani, Gibson, Giggs, Park; Hernandez, Berbatov.
Subs: De Gea, Fryers (for Evans, 46), Rafael, Welbeck, Diouf, Macheda (for Giggs, 64), Rooney (for Nani, 64).
Referee: Phil Dowd
Star Man: Victor Moses