The Dutchman has now not been beaten for 1031 minutes. If he keeps Everton at bay for 72 minutes on Saturday, he will claim the English record held by Reading's Steve Death. 'Van der Sar, who has achieved everything in the game, was as delighted afterwards as when he saved that penalty kick [from Nicolas Anelka] in Moscow,' said Sir Alex Ferguson. 'That tells you about his desire. He still has that ambitious streak and wants to win.'
If United are in the grip of an injury crisis, heaven help the rest. Ryan Giggs was magnificent in central midfield, the defence was strengthened by Rio Ferdinand and the champions were utterly irresistible in front of goal, scoring through Dimitar Berbatov, Carlos Tevez, Nemanja Vidic and Cristiano Ronaldo twice. If Ronaldo is in the grip of a confidence crisis, heaven help the opposition when he really regains belief.
'We saw a ruthless streak that has maybe not been there this season,'' added Ferguson. 'We hoped it was going to come. We expected it to come because of the standard of forwards we have.''
As Berbatov and Tevez click into prolific gear, Liverpool must win at Wigan Athletic this evening to keep pace with Ferguson's thoroughbreds, stopping what appeared a fortnight ago a classic title race from turning into a procession. Rafa Benitez's strange outburst against Ferguson looks more ill-judged with every passing game.
'Top of the League – and that's a fact,' chanted the huge congregation of United supporters, mocking Benitez's obsession with 'facts'. What is an undeniable fact is that Berbatov has brought United a new dimension, a composed presence in front of goal, a striker as adept at creating as finishing.
Another fact revolves around West Brom. Defeat leaves Tony Mowbray's men in an even bigger battle to avoid relegation. 'We've done it before, and we'll do it again,'' chanted the Baggies faithful, conjuring up memories of 'The Great Escape' of 2004-05. If West Brom survive, it is safe to assume that the victory party will not include the name of R Styles on the guest list.
Rarely can a whole club, from turf to terrace via technical area, have been so united in anger towards an official. Their most famous supporter, Frank Skinner, could have filmed his Panorama special on swearing here in 90 minutes. West Brom are one of those civilised clubs who rarely complain, and whose players are hardly noted as the moaning types but they dissolved in dissent towards Styles following his controversial dismissal of Paul Robinson.
West Brom were already trailing when Robinson slid in to contest a loose ball with Ji-sung Park, but they were still only a goal down, even if the champions were beginning to move ominously through the gears.
As Robinson flew, his left foot angled towards the ball but his right was always going to make bruising contact with Park's ribs. In approaching an opponent at such speed, Robinson's carelessness bordered on recklessness. West Brom's captain never left the ground in pursuing the ball, so Styles could have given a yellow but from the referee's angle, he could not see the ball, only a Korean midfielder buckling under the force of a late-arriving English full-back.
Robinson was shocked to be punished even with a free-kick and was genuinely stunned when Styles brandished red. Television replays were hardly helpful: from behind, it looked a horror challenge but when seen with the ball in view, Robinson's case that he was targeting the ball carried some legitimacy. The tough-tackling full-back could have been the victim of his reputation: this was his sixth red card in three seasons.
'It was a careless challenge which he didn't have to do,' Ferguson said. Mowbray refused to be drawn on the controversy, but he will look at the replay again this morning before deciding whether to appeal. 'I'm not bothered about the referee,' Mowbray said, 'but if you think he was poor, tell the world.'
His team had begun so positively, Jay Simpson and Borja Valero going close. Some of the tackles flying in were designed to test the champions' character. No question. There was a spiky, steely side to Mowbray's men. No doubt. Carl Hoefkens went through the back of Ronaldo, ignoring the ball, leaving the European Footballer of the Year crumpled on the floor. Valero then poleaxed Ferdinand. United knew they would leave with some bruises.
Gradually, United's touch began to glisten under the floodlights. West Brom began to retreat, Ferguson's players racing through in numbers. Carrick, excelling here, made the first, accepting Berbatov's ball with his left, returning it with his right. United's No 9 did the rest, drilling an unstoppable shot past Carson. With only a quarter of the game elapsed, it was clearly going to be a long, painful evening for Carson and co, particularly after Robinson's exit.
As West Brom players continued their complaints, a fan demonstrated the terrace anger, launching a bottle at Styles. It missed, and was flicked from the field by Giggs. The Welshman was becoming increasingly involved, creating United's next three goals. From a free-kick, Giggs bent over a ball that Carson dropped, gifting Tevez an easy tap-in. West Brom were crushed and Valero even requested Tevez's shirt as they left the pitch at half-time.
Ryan Donk raised brief hopes by almost snapping the bar, but then came Giggs again, sweeping over a corner that Vidic headed firmly in. The rout was confirmed when Giggs delivered a perfect square pass into the path of Ronaldo, who beat Carson powerfully.
There was more, Berbatov ushering Ronaldo through as the Hawthorns screamed for offside. Ronaldo ignored all the noise, all the doubts and swept the ball underneath Carson, sending home fans into complete meltdown.