London: Striker Wayne Rooney made his long-awaited return for Manchester United on Saturday when they took advantage of defeats for title rivals Chelsea and Arsenal with a 2-0 home victory over nine-man Wigan Athletic.
Goals by Patrice Evra and Javier Hernandez either side of halftime put United level on 28 points with leaders Chelsea who suffered consecutive defeats in the Premier League for the first time in more than four years, losing 1-0 at Birmingham City.
Arsenal missed the chance to go top in the early game when they blew a two-goal lead versus Tottenham Hotspur to lose 3-2 at The Emirates. The Gunners, who had not lost at home in the league to their arch-rivals since 1993, are third on 26 points.
Bolton Wanderers moved up a place to fourth with 22 points, above Manchester City and Spurs on goal difference, after thrashing Newcastle United 5-1. City visit Fulham on Sunday.
Rooney got a mixed reception from the Old Trafford fans when he emerged as a second-half substitute for his first appearance since signing a lucrative new contract in October after initially saying he wanted to leave the club.
The England striker, who has been recovering from an ankle injury in Dubai, looked lively but was unable to get on the scoresheet despite Wigan losing Antolin Alcaraz and Hugo Rodallega to red cards in quick succession after an hour.
Evra headed United in front from Park Ji-sung`s cross on the stroke of halftime and Hernandez, who also came off the bench, sealed the points with another header after 77 minutes.
In the dying moments, Rooney scuffed an effort straight at Wigan goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi while Evra inexplicably fired wide from the angle of the six-yard box.
Rooney went close with a header and also dragged a late shot wide as he searched in vain for his first United goal from open play this season.
"We are yet to hit our best form and normally we do that in the second half of the season so that can`t come soon enough," Ferguson, whose side are still unbeaten in the league this season, said.
"Wayne got a great reception, that was very satisfying. It has taken a lot of pressure off him."
Lee Bowyer`s goal lifted Birmingham out of the relegation zone and completed a terrible week for champions Chelsea, who also lost 3-0 at home to Sunderland last week and are without injured skipper John Terry.
Bowyer scored after 17 minutes and despite intense pressure the visitors were unable to reply as Birmingham held on for their first Premier League win over Chelsea.
"It was a good reaction from us, there was a good spirit a good attitude," Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti said. "We deserved to win today, just like we deserved to lose last week against Sunderland. That`s football."
There were lunchtime fireworks at Arsenal as Arsene Wenger`s side slipped to their third home league defeat of the season.
Defender Younes Kaboul completed a remarkable comeback for Tottenham with an 86th minute headed winner after goals from Samir Nasri and Marouane Chamakh had given Arsenal a comfortable 2-0 interval lead.
Gareth Bale halved the deficit five minutes after the break and a Rafael van der Vaart penalty levelled it up before Kaboul`s late strike left Arsenal stunned.
Wolverhampton Wanderers remained second from bottom after a 2-1 defeat by Blackpool while Stoke City won 3-0 at West Bromwich Albion. Liverpool were playing bottom side West Ham United at Anfield later on Saturday.