MANCHESTER (AFP) – Wayne Rooney ensured Manchester United packed a punch as they tightened their grip on a top-four place with an impressive 3-0 victory over Tottenham on Sunday.
After going out of the FA Cup against Arsenal last Monday, the sole remaining target for Louis van Gaal s first season in charge is to finish at least fourth in the Premier League to seal a return to the Champions League.
A record of just two league defeats since the start of November had given them every chance, but the unconvincing nature of some of their performances had still raised doubts that they would stay the course.
A run of games against Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea within their next five fixtures was supposed to be the acid test.
And van Gaal s side could not have made a better start by overwhelming a Tottenham side with top-four aspirations of their own thank to an impressive run which had lifted them to within three points of United before kick-off.
Spurs had also won on their two previous visits to Old Trafford but any chance of a hat-trick disappeared with first-half goals from Marouane Fellaini, Michael Carrick and Rooney, who had woken to unwanted headlines after footage emerged of him supposedly being knocked out during a sparring session with a former United team-mate.
United were superior in every department as they produced one of their best performances under van Gaal and, thanks to a ninth win in 10 home league games, they are now just two points behind second placed Manchester City.
United again started with the out of form Radamel Falcao on the bench.
With Robin van Persie also still out injured, Fellaini has played an increasingly important role as an attacking option and it was the Belgium international who put United ahead after nine minutes with his fifth goal of the season.
Carrick s return to starting duty for the first time since late January was also a contributory factor to United s first-half dominance and it was a pass from the former Tottenham midfielder that released Fellaini to score with a low left-footed shot across Hugo Lloris.
Carrick had not scored since February 2014 and managed only one all of last season.
But his 19th minute finish was that of a proven marksman as he deftly guided a header beyond Lloris after Nacer Chadli had struggled to clear a header from Fellaini following an Ashley Young corner.
Tottenham looked anything but the side that had won five of their previous seven league games and watching England coach Roy Hodgson barely saw Harry Kane, aiming to score for a seventh successive away game, get a meaningful touch as he seeks to win a place in the full England squad to be named this coming week.
Rooney will definitely be in that squad and he underlined his well-being with his 19th goal of the season 11 minutes before the break to make victory a formality.
Taking possession off Nabil Bentaleb, the United captain ran unchecked through Tottenham s defence before slotting the ball home and celebrating with a flurry of punches and a collapse to the floor to mimic the morning newspaper report which claimed he had been knocked out in an impromptu boxing bout in his kitchen with Stoke defender Phil Bardsley.
Spurs couldn t be as bad in the second half and Ryan Mason missed a chance to pull a goal back when he shot wide 10 minutes into the second half and Kane was denied by David de Gea at the death.
United also didn t need to sustain the tempo and intensity that marked this out as one of their best performances at Old Trafford since the Alex Ferguson era.