Ten-man Manchester United powered towards the Premier League title with a clinical 4-1 destruction of West Ham at Old Trafford.
Victory at Wigan next Sunday will confirm Sir Alex Ferguson's men as champions, but the coronation may come even earlier as Chelsea now need to get something - and almost certainly win - at Newcastle to fight on until the final day.
Not even the first-half dismissal of Nani could shake United from their stride as Cristiano Ronaldo's double took his tally for the campaign to 40 and was quickly followed by a Carlos Tevez thunderbolt.
Michael Carrick wrapped up victory after the interval to keep United on course for the double and place all the pressure on Champions League final opponents Chelsea, who are now three points adrift, with a far worse goal difference and two matches to do something about it.
A veteran of nine successful title quests - and a few failures as well - Ferguson would have known what benefit an early goal would bring.
After seeing his team reach the Champions League final on Tuesday, then cheer his beloved Rangers into the UEFA Cup final two days later, Ferguson might have wondered if enough wishes had been granted for one week. Yet, within three minutes the Red Devils were ahead.
The familiar frame of Ronaldo would have been capable of causing some damage anyway as he collected Nani's flick, but Lucas Neill's ill-timed slip merely allowed the double Footballer of the Year to charge into the box and unleash a shot which flicked off George McCartney and flew in.
There was no sense of nerves around the ground, but any remaining apprehension was dispelled as United assumed total control and 20 minutes later they had a second.
In amassing 40 goals this season Ronaldo has scored some amazing efforts. His latest was not among them as Owen Hargreaves swung a left-footed cross to the far post which the entire Hammers defence failed to cut out.
It still needed scoring, though, and a quick swivel of the hips ensured the ball bounced past Robert Green.
Ronaldo has not been overshadowed very often this season, but Tevez did exactly that as he picked up his young team-mate's lay-off, then blasted a 30-yard rocket into the roof of Green's net, the West Ham goalkeeper powerless to resist.
On this ground last season, the Hammers fans hailed Tevez a hero and they still revere the Argentinian now for keeping them up.
Yet instead of applause, the visiting contingent could only wonder what fate lay ahead as their team threatened to be submerged, even against a side lacking Wayne Rooney, whose hip problem has been reported in some quarters as a far more worrying hernia complaint.
The Hammers need not have worried, for, after Dean Ashton's smart overhead kick completed a remarkable spell of three goals in six minutes, Nani lost his head.
Neill hardly reacted in the most calm manner after Nani had tried and failed to connect with an ambitious overhead kick, but the Portugal winger had no excuse for responding the way he did by butting Neill and dismissal was automatic.
The red card threw unnecessary doubt over United's charge towards the title, although they received assistance from West Ham's woeful attempt to make the extra man count.
It was not lack of desire which kept them from toppling their hosts, who Hammers boss Alan Curbishley feels deserve to win the title, more a lack of ability.
Carrick was offered more room to run into than he could believe before firing home his second goal of the campaign, with Neill again providing the accidental deflection.
The unconnected arrival of Ryan Giggs and departure of Ronaldo were significant in that it took the Welshman to within one game of equalling Sir Bobby Charlton's revised appearance record of 758.
It also suggested some element of doubt over Rooney returning, as it offered United's major attacking force a rest, even though he remained on a hat-trick and apparently full of energy.
Ronaldo's replacement, Darren Fletcher, struck a post with his precise shot, although by then it hardly mattered.
United thanked their supporters for a season of effort with a lap of the pitch at the end. In eight days' time they could be celebrating for real.
Labels: Man Utd FC