MANCHESTER: A quickfire Wayne Rooney hat-trick rescued Manchester United on Saturday as they stormed seven points clear at the top of the Premier League after coming from two goals down to beat West Ham United 4-2.
Their march towards a record 19th top-flight title was helped by second-placed Arsenal failing to break down Blackburn Rovers in a 0-0 draw at The Emirates that left Gunners manager Arsene Wenger concerned by his side's lack of energy.
Chelsea's hopes of retaining their title are all but over after being held 1-1 at Stoke City. The Londoners trail the leaders by 11 points in third spot.
Manchester United have 66 points from 31 matches, ahead of Arsenal with 59 from 30 and Chelsea on 55 from 30.
West Ham looked like recording a second victory over United this season, following a 4-0 rout in the League Cup, as sloppy mistakes by Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic gave away two penalties in the opening 25 minutes that Mark Noble converted.
Revived by the introduction of Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov and lucky to still have Vidic on the pitch after the Serbian defender escaped a red card for bringing down Demba Ba when the striker was set to go clear on goal, United fought back.
Rooney curled in a free kick midway through the second half before levelling with a low drive. The England striker completed a 14-minute treble by converting a penalty given for Matthew Upson's unlucky handball.
Hernandez added a well-taken goal from close range after being set up by Ryan Giggs and United manager Alex Ferguson said later that his team “played like champions”.
Rooney's joy at scoring his first league hat-trick of a below-par season culminated in him having to apologise for swearing on live television while celebrating.
“Emotions were running high and on reflection my heat of the moment reaction was inappropriate,” he told the club's website (www.manutd.com) after chalking up 101 league goals for United.
One thing running high at The Emirates was Arsenal midfielder Samir Nasri's huge bump on his head which bulged through his bandage when he opted to play on in the second period following a first-half clash of heads.
Arsenal's best chance came late on when a Nicklas Bendtner shot was blocked on the line and they could not make the most of Steven N'Zonzi's 76th-minute sending off for a two-footed challenge as relegation-threatened Blackburn held firm.
“Overall it was a flat performance with a lack of energy level, lack of sharpness, and it's quite a big concern to see what we have seen today,” Wenger told a news conference.
“Very few players looked to have the resources to pick the pace up in the game ... before we speak about the title we have to focus on our performance level because it was not good enough today.”
Chelsea were similarly frustrated at Stoke and went behind to a Jonathan Walters goal. Although Didier Drogba pulled one back with a header in the 33rd minute, only the most optimistic fan could agree with manager Carlo Ancelotti's view that the title race was not over.
“We have to continue, we have to do our best, we said before this game it was not easy to close the gap and it will be more difficult. We have to take it game by game,” said the Italian.
West Bromwich Albion jumped from 16th to 12th after manager Roy Hodgson masterminded a 2-1 win over his former club Liverpool.
While West Ham's defeat plunged them deep into relegation trouble, Birmingham City clambered out of the bottom three and up to 15th with a 2-1 home victory over Bolton Wanderers.
In the battle for Champions League places Tottenham Hotspur stayed fifth after a 0-0 draw at bottom club Wigan Athletic, leaving them three points behind Manchester City who host Sunderland on Sunday.
Spurs and City have both played 30 games.
Aston Villa could only draw 2-2 at Everton and are just two points above the relegation zone while Newcastle United thumped second-from-bottom Wolverhampton Wanderers 4-1.