|Rooney finally finds his form as manager Alex Ferguson proclaims his side 'played like champions' [AFP]
An inspired Wayne Rooney rescued Manchester United on Saturday with a 4-2 comeback win over West Ham in the English Premier League.
United stormed seven points clear at the top of the table as title contenders Arsenal and Chelsea both dropped points.
Second-place Arsenal could only draw 0-0 with 10-man Blackburn and defending champions Chelsea needed Didier Drogba to equalise for a 1-1 draw at mid-table Stoke as Rooney's first hat trick for 14 months helped the leaders bounce back from a 2-0 half-time deficit to boost their chances of a record 19th English championship.
"I thought we played like champions today," United manager Alex Ferguson said.
"We kept our heads up, we didn't lose faith in our ability and that was a great boost. We dominated that second half and deserved to win. It was a real championship performance as far as I'm concerned."
Manchester United have 66 points from 31 matches, ahead of Arsenal with 59 from 30 and Chelsea on 55 from 30.
Liverpool, who share the record of 18 titles with United, lost 2-1 against a West Bromwich Albion side led by their former manager, Roy Hodgson, while Tottenham's hopes of a second straight top-four finish were hit by a 0-0 draw at Wigan.
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 Serb 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.
"We don't give up, no matter what the score,'' Rooney said.
"We were brilliant all over the park, but even when we haven't been playing well we have been grinding out results.''
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.
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.
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.
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.