LONDON (Reuters) – Shinji Kagawa became the first Asian player to score a Premier League hat-trick with the Japanese midfielder’s stunning display inspiring runaway leaders Manchester United to a 4-0 victory over Norwich City at Old Trafford on Saturday.
Another capacity crowd had turned up expecting to witness Welshman Ryan Giggs make his 1,000th senior appearance for club and country but it was newcomer Kagawa, who was still a one-year-old when Giggs made his United debut in 1991, who stole the show as United romped 15 points clear.
The 23-year-old put United ahead on the stroke of halftime and scored twice more after the break before Wayne Rooney’s late screamer rounded off a victory that kept Alex Ferguson’s side surging relentlessly towards a 20th English title.
Despite the proximity of United’s Champions League last 16, second leg clash with Real Madrid on Tuesday, United fielded a strong line-up although Giggs was given a rare afternoon off.
Champions Manchester City can close the gap to 12 points with victory at Aston Villa on Monday but the most exciting issues left this season, barring a United collapse, appear to be the battle for the top four places and the relegation scrap.
Chelsea leapfrogged Tottenham Hotspur into third place with Demba Ba’s first-half goal earning under-fire manager Rafa Benitez’s side a 1-0 win against West Bromwich Albion.
Interim boss Benitez, who criticised the club’s fans in the week when he confirmed he would leave the club in May, was spared the anticipated barracking from the stands as Chelsea moved a point above Tottenham who face Arsenal on Sunday.
"There were a lot of positives. The reception from the crowd was quite good. I wanted everybody to stick together," Benitez, taunted with one banner declaring him "The Interim One", said.
"You can see today the fans were behind the team."
Everton revived their flagging hopes of a top-four finish and qualification for the Champions League with a 3-1 defeat of Reading to move to within six points of Spurs – Marouane Fellaini, Steven Pienarr and Kevin Mirallas all on target.
Bottom club Queens Park Rangers capitalised on Reading’s defeat, winning 2-1 at Southampton to leave Harry Redknapp’s side four points adrift of fourth from bottom Wigan Athletic who host Liverpool later on Saturday.
League Cup winners Swansea City avoided any hangover with a 1-0 home win against Newcastle United, Sunderland hit back from a two-goal deficit to draw 2-2 at home to Fulham and West Ham United eased any relegation fears with a 1-0 win at Stoke City.
Kagawa, whose first season at Old Trafford since signing from Borussia Dortmund started promisingly with a goal on his home debut but has since been disrupted by injury, delighted Ferguson and no doubt the large United fan club back in Japan.
"It’s brilliant for him. The lad is a good finisher and his second goal was so composed and an intelligent finish while his third was absolutely brilliantly taken," Ferguson told Sky Sports. "It’s been a great day for him."
Ferguson also said Giggs would reach his career milestone against Real Madrid on Tuesday.
"(He) will be involved against Real Madrid, no doubt about it," he said.
Robin van Persie teed Kagawa up to volley his first – United’s 900th Premier League goal – on the stroke of halftime and his two goals after the break were both assisted by Rooney who looked razor sharp with Real Madrid looming.
Norwich rarely threatened a repeat of their victory over United earlier in the season and Kagawa’s cool finish from Rooney’s unselfish pass made it 2-0 after 76 minutes.
His historic hat-trick was completed three minutes from time when he ran on to Rooney’s pass to clip the ball home and Rooney then turned finisher with a 25-yard curler.
QPR’s third league win of the season brightened Redknapp’s 66th birthday although the former Spurs boss was angry about a newspaper report claiming his players indulged in late-night drinking sessions at a training camp in Dubai.
"A disgusting story full of untruths," Redknapp told the BBC. "I know where the story has come from and it’s someone trying to make problems for the club. I can be as sure as I can be that it came from a football agent."
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